California Democrats are putting the finishing touches on what may be the most ambitiously liberal session in decades, offering a potential preview of the national party’s agenda ahead of the 2020 presidential contest.
The legislature’s agenda this year includes expanding access to higher education and health care, parental leave, environmental initiatives aimed at reining in carbon emissions, massive infrastructure spending and added protections for immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
Some measures are meant as a direct challenge to the Trump administration, as California Democrats set themselves up to be the face of the resistance. Others could have been cribbed from Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign.
On Wednesday, the legislature passed a bill that would make the first year of community college free for first-time students, a step toward free college proposals Sanders and others have proposed.
The Assembly gave final approval to a bill that would require most businesses to give employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave. And legislators passed a bill to require insurance companies and state health plans to provide information about the costs of prescription drugs.
Before adjourning on Friday, the legislature is likely to pass a bill that would limit state law enforcement officials from interacting with federal immigration officials, making California a sanctuary state for immigrants.
Senate President Kevin de Leon (D) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D) said this week they would also allocate $30 million for legal defense funds for state residents covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which President Trump has said he will wind down.
The state Senate is likely to give final approval to a measure that would add a third gender option on birth certificates and driver licenses, alongside options for male or female. That measure would also streamline the process for changing one’s gender identity with state agencies.
“The culture wars are over in California today. It’s just no contest,” said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. “We’ve seen a real solid Democratic coalition on anything that involves the culture wars or immigration.”
The measures aimed at protecting immigrants were borne of what political analyst Dan Walters called “the anti-Trump fervor that’s sweeping the Capitol.”
“I think California did establish itself as a center of resistance in rhetorical terms, but not especially so in real terms,” said Walter, a former columnist at the Sacramento Bee who now contributes to the nonprofit political site CALmatters.
The rush to finalize the progressive wish list comes after Democrats passed a measure earlier this year extending the state’s cap and trade program, and another that raised the gas tax to fund infrastructure projects. At the same time, legislators set aside extra money for Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), who has hired new lawyers for his legal battles against the Trump administration.
Brown has said he will approve the sanctuary state bill and the new funding for legal assistance for DACA recipients. He has not commented on several other measures pending his signature, though he vetoed a parental leave bill last year.
Republicans, relegated to the sidelines by Democratic super majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate, say the Democratic agenda has made California too expensive.
“Starting from the gas tax increase to now, you’re going to have someone pay more at the gas pump, their electricity bills are going up, they can’t afford a home,” said Assemblyman Vince Fong, a Republican serving his first term in Sacramento. “You’ve got more taxes, more regulations, more fees.”
But Democrats faced a major schism over the top priority for liberals in California, a proposal to establish a single-payer health care system. The measure passed the state Senate earlier this year, but Rendon shelved it over the summer over concerns about funding mechanisms.
The bill is backed by the California Nurses Association, the largest union that backed Sanders during his 2016 presidential campaign. Don Nielsen, the union’s government relations director, said the issue is becoming a “litmus test” for Democrats in Sacramento.
“California is going to lead the way, and we’ve led the way up to this point,” Nielsen said. “This is mainstream.”
“There are still limits to California’s liberalism, and that was best shown earlier this year when the Speaker, at great personal peril, had to put to death the unfunded single-payer bill,” Kousser said. “We’re not yet Bernie Sanders’s America.”
Sixteen Democratic senators, including California’s Kamala Harris, co-sponsored a similar single-payer bill Sanders introduced on Wednesday. Kousser said the difference between the Senate’s version and California’s version is that the California bill actually has a chance of becoming law — and that chance is what raised concerns in Sacramento.
In the U.S. Senate, Democrats “know it’s a free vote. They know it’s not going to become reality in any kind of near-time horizon. Whereas Democrats in California had to say ‘no’ to a similar measure when faced with the challenges of implementing and taking responsibility for it,” he said. “There are things you can do when the politics are symbolic, and you have to pull back from them when it’s going to be your party that’s responsible for putting it into policy.”
Some Assembly Democrats predicted the measure, which could cost as much as $400 billion to implement, would make a comeback next year.
“We will, out of the Assembly, have a solution for California that we’ll be able to pay for, and more importantly that Californians will accept,” said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D), who heads the progressive caucus.