What does the California state legislature do?
Our state representatives are back up in Sacramento for a fresh session of lawmaking. Here's a brief look at what they do and why we barely hear from them.
LA has likely never had this level of awareness of our local lawmakers. From massive protests to a daily deluge of calls and emails, the mayor and city council are feeling the heat of the city they have let down during this pandemic. Of course, most folks know they have reps in congress too and maybe they’ve even reached out to them about an issue or two.
Meanwhile, there’s a whole group of people representing us up in Sacramento flying way under the radar. They barely even make the news. What’s truly wild is how little competition they have when they run for office. Many candidates even run unopposed.
Our state legislature reconvened last week for the beginning of a new session of passing bills at the speed of a bunch of turtles trying to outrun a tidal wave. There are many urgent needs before them from the distribution of the vaccine to keeping people in their homes to making sure unemployment makes it into bank accounts. Will they come through for us? They rarely do!
With every new session, a new hope emerges and it’s worth tuning in to find out what exactly your representatives are doing up at the state capitol.
What the state legislature does
Our government works in layers. The most general laws and regulations happen at the federal level. The most specific happen at the city level. The state is somewhere in the middle.
The state legislature passes laws that govern the state of California. This includes anything that happens in or affects California. From housing production to climate change to trade with other countries, California lawmakers have a full plate of bills to pass.
There are a lot of laws that could be put forward at different levels of the government and there’s a lot of flexibility in who does what. In fact, politicians often send each other little love notes known as non-binding resolutions to say—“hey, this seems like it’s your job.” This gives the appearance they’ve taken action on something without actually having to make any hard decisions. Clever!
Here’s some examples of what California’s legislature does, based on bills that have been introduced this session:
They also approve our state budget which is created by the governor and is presented just before the legislators come back into session each year. The 2021-22 proposed state budget includes funds for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, money for schools to reopen, as well as financial relief for individuals and small businesses.
Every state has a set of lawmakers but what’s interesting about California is that ours are full time. In fact, most states in the US have part time or hybrid state governments meaning their elected officials meet for only a few months and usually work other jobs too. But here in the golden state, being a state legislator is a full time job and it pays the most of any state in the union.
The two houses
The State Senate has 40 members who serve 4 year terms.
The State Assembly has 80 members who serve 2 year terms.
As of 2012, officials can serve a maximum of 12 years in the state legislature total. A lot of our city and county officials have served in the state legislature. It’s a great resume builder.
The State Senate is the “upper house” and the State Assembly is the “lower house” though I can’t identify any substantial difference in the powers or operation of the two houses. State Senators tend to be more experienced politicians since it’s a bit harder to win those seats but it’s not a rule by any means. Bills can originate in either house and they have to pass both houses anyway.
How they work
🕒 When they meet
The California state legislature has two year sessions. We’ve just begun the 2021-2022 session. They start fresh every two years so if a bill doesn’t get passed in a session, it has to be re-introduced the next session. You’ll notice on the last day of the session, they tend to do a late night cram session of passing bills which makes it seem like they did nothing throughout the year. It gets me every time.
Even though they are a “full time legislature,” they are not in session year-round.
Notable dates for this session include:
Dec 7, 2020: Start of new session. Both houses meet, welcome their newly elected members and introduce a bunch of bills. Then, they take a break.
Jan 11, 2021: Legislature comes back in session. Bills start getting assigned to committees for consideration.
Feb 19, 2021: Last day for bills to be introduced this year.
June 4, 2021: Last day for bills to pass their house of origin so they can go to the other house.
June 15, 2021: Last day for state budget to be approved.
Sept 10, 2021: Last day for bills to pass both houses. If they pass, they go to to governor to sign or veto. Legislature goes on recess.
Oct 10, 2021: Last day for the governor to sign or veto bills.
Jan 3, 2022: Legislature reconvenes.
📖 What they do
The diagrams explaining how a bill becomes a law are more complicated than a chart of human anatomy but there are a few key things you should know about how laws are made in California:
Bills go through committees before going through to a full vote. There’s a lot of opportunity for advocacy when a bill is in a committee as that is where bills often die. You can find a list of Assembly Committees here and Senate Committees here.
Bills can originate in either house but they have to pass both houses and get the governor’s approval before becoming a law. The governor can sign or veto bills.
It’s quite a long process end-to-end and it can take months for a bill to make it through the whole system.
Want to know more about how this works? Check out any bill in the legislative database and tap on “Bill History” to see the journey of that bill through the houses and the committees.
How to keep track of your reps
Each legislator has a limit of how many bills they can introduce each session. They also have their own policy interests which guide which bills they will author or which they will support. Campaign financing and political aspirations play a big role in this as does lobbying from corporations or other special interests.
Your representatives also sit on committees so they have a lot of influence over bills that come through those. Most legislators will include their committee assignments on their websites or you can find them on BillTrack50.
For example, if you look up Assemblymember Laura Friedman who is the new chair of the Assembly’s transportation committee, you’ll see she introduced a bill about pedestrian and bike traffic safety. Or you can see Senator Henry Stern has two bills around fire management and forestry which makes sense given the landscape of his district, his committee assignments and his stated priorities.
Figure out what your representatives are authoring by going to the LegInfo site and finding their names in the dropdown.
What the governor does
The governor’s role is similar to that of a president or a mayor. They are the chief executive overseeing the state government.
California’s governor informs policy goals for the state, creates the state budget and holds emergency powers like enacting pandemic stay at home orders or bringing in the National Guard. The governor also appoints many key roles in the state and, as we saw recently, can even appoint vacant federal offices like U.S. Senate seats. And they can grant clemency to those who have been convicted of a crime in California.
When it comes to bills, everything that the state legislators pass comes before the governor for signing into law. The governor can and often does veto bills. His office puts out press releases when he signs or vetoes bills. You’ll also see reporters who focus on Sacramento writing pieces on why he vetoed something, especially if it was a high profile bill.
How to get involved
If you live in California, you have one State Senator and one State Assemblymember. Learn who they are, what they care about and how to stay in touch with them. State officials sometimes attend Neighborhood Council meetings or hold local town halls and you can also call them to find out what public events they might be holding soon.
Set a Google alert on their names to see any relevant news on them
Sign up on their website for emails and follow them on social media
Track a bill by subscribing on the leg info site (when you find a bill you’re interested in, click “track bill”)
If you’re interested in proposing a bill, find allies and organizations who want to propose similar legislation. Then, book meetings with legislators to see who would be willing to introduce your bill. Learn more about this in the issue on booking meetings.
If you’re interested in supporting a bill that’s already been introduced, you can get in touch with the author(s) of the bill (as seen on the California LegInfo site) or you can get in touch with groups who helped make sure the bill was introduced. You can sometimes find this info in the text of the bill or in news articles that explain the bill. Google it!
A few other useful resources on state lawmaking
Even though California has a supermajority of Democratic power in the state government, you wouldn’t know it by the glacial pace of progress here. It’s a lot easier to hide behind things like the Trump administration than it is to look at what’s happening here at home. Trump’s impeachment was literally the first thing they took up upon coming back into session last week.
Now that that’s happened, looks like the coast is clear for them to get some real, life-saving work done. Will they act with urgency? Or will they let us down by fumbling the bills? All this and more on this season of the California state legislature!
There is one seat currently vacant in our state legislature—the position Holly Mitchell left open when she won her bid for LA County Supervisor. If you live in District 30, you have an election coming up on March 2 to choose a new State Senator. Find out more about that election here.
Always paying attention