January 4, 2016

Moderate Democrats on the Rise in Sacramento

By Dave Puglia

In recent years, business and industry groups have been cautiously hopeful that as Democrats ran up their numbers in the California Legislature, a moderate faction would emerge within their ranks that could help deflect at least some of the annual barrage of legislation promoted by environmental groups, trial lawyers and labor unions.  For the cautiously optimistic, 2015 marks the emergence of just such a faction.

Whether the so-called “New Democrats” impact a larger swatch of legislation this year is an open question, and for Sacramento veterans with long memories, there is even reason to worry about the longevity of this newfound moderation.

Under the leadership of Fresno-area Assemblyman Henry Perea, the New Democrats rose up in 2015 to effectively derail one of the environmental lobby’s priority measures and force them to strip the heart out of another.  Both bills dealt with climate change.

One would have doubled down on the state’s already-ambitious (and, charitably speaking, economically-questionable) mandates for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  That bill was shelved for the year in the face of strong opposition from the moderate Democrats.  Because no Republicans would vote for the bill, the opposition of the New Democrats sealed its fate.

The second measure proposed three mandates to reduce air pollution.  The first sought to impose new “green building” rules to increase the efficiency of heating, cooling and other commercial building systems.  The second component would increase the state’s mandated production of energy from renewable sources like wind and solar (but not hydropower, which environmental groups dislike in spite of its unmatched track record of providing clean renewable power).  Finally, the legislation would require that California reduce petroleum fuel consumption for transportation by half by 2050.  It was this last provision that drew the strongest opposition from the moderate Democrats in the Assembly.

In spite of the very public support of Governor Jerry Brown and a flotilla of environmental activist groups, the bill’s author (Senate President pro tem Kevin DeLeon of Los Angeles) was forced to strip out the petroleum reduction mandate in order to avoid watching the entire measure go down in flames on the Assembly floor.  The bill ultimately passed, and was approved by the governor, without the petroleum reduction mandate.

Western Growers actively lobbied against both of these bills, which would have imposed dangerously-high energy costs on farmers and food processors.  Matthew Allen, director of California Government Affairs for WG, personally lobbied dozens of legislators as part of a large coalition of business and industry interests.

All things considered, the outcome on both bills was good news for California agriculture.  But the reality is that the cognoscenti in Sacramento defined these events as victories for the petroleum industry, not agriculture or any other energy-intensive industry.  That raises a couple of important questions for the agriculture industry.

First, will the New Democrats stand as firmly when environmental activists single out agriculture (as compared to the petroleum industry)?

Second, will the New Democrats be as courageous when it comes to job-killing legislation sponsored by labor unions?

As to the first question, the transition of leadership of the New Democrat caucus suggests that our industry will be heard.  Although the departure of Henry Perea (who retired from the Assembly a year before his final term ended) caused initial anxiety, the selection of new co-chairs of the caucus resulted in Bakersfield Assemblyman Rudy Salas taking the reins in partnership with Assemblyman Jim Cooper of Sacramento.  Salas has been a fairly reliable advocate for agriculture and Cooper has made efforts to be engaged with the industry.

The second question is more troublesome.  While the moderate Democrats have been willing to flex serious muscle, and dictate outcomes, on legislation promoted by environmental interests, there is less evidence to suggest that labor unions have cause for similar concern.  Perhaps this is because most moderate Democrats view environmental activism (espoused mostly by coastal legislators) as a direct threat to jobs and opportunity for the people they represent (in mostly inland working class districts).  While we argue that labor union-sponsored legislation, which usually undermines the competitiveness of agriculture employers, is just as threatening to jobs, most Democratic legislators—moderates included—show less temerity in backing down their labor union allies.

All of this is to say that we have much more work to do.  Realistically, we know we probably won’t see the moderate Democrats act as brakes on the agendas of environmental groups and labor unions alike.  After all, a moderate Democrat is not a Republican.  But if it is the desire to protect working-class jobs that motivates moderate Democrats to resist the job-killing agendas of the political left, we must not let labor unions off the hook when they propose legislation that is just as harmful to employers and the jobs they support as anything the environmental activists can cook up.