Analysis: California Maybe Not As Liberal As It Seemed in 2013

SACRAMENTO — At first glance, it might seem that California lived up to its reputation for unmitigated liberalism in 2013.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed bills to let illegal immigrants get driver’s licenses and practice law; raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour, the highest of any state; and make California the only state this year to increase access to abortions.

But look a little closer, and the year wasn’t as far to the left as many think — or as it might’ve been had the governor not reined in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Brown gave the National Rifle Association seven of the 11 vetoes it wanted, including a controversial bill to ban all semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines. He angered many environmentalists by signing a bill to regulate, not ban, oil and natural gas fracking. And of 38 bills deemed “job killers” by the California Chamber of Commerce, only one — that minimum wage hike — made it to Brown’s desk and became law.

“We saw Jerry Brown this year weave a very cautious path, carefully picking and choosing his battles,” said Bruce Cain, a political-science professor at Stanford University. “Any concern he has about an issue now will only intensify next year when he most likely runs for re-election.”

State Sen. Mark Leno said he found some of the governor’s vetoes to be inconsistent with his priorities.

Brown rejected a bill sponsored by Leno that would have required input from local authorities before gun shows are scheduled at the Cow Palace in Daly City even though Brown has said he supports shifting power from the state to municipalities.

“For three years, this administration has been advocating local control, saying ‘Let the decisions be made by those who are impacted,’” said Leno, D-San Francisco, “and he vetoes a bill that would have required some local support for gun shows that are now imposed on the community by the state.”

Brown’s opposition to Leno’s bill is one example of the moderate position he staked on gun control legislation this year. In the end, despite killing a majority of the bills on the NRA’s hit list, the governor did sign more gun-control bills than he vetoed — including a bill to ban lead ammunition in hunting that sparked heated debate.

“The only thing else Jerry Brown could possibly want is a few more people to work with in between the 40-yard lines,” said Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican strategist who directs the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

With Brown’s re-election campaign on the horizon, Schnur predicts a similar course in 2014.

“I don’t know that it’s going to be much different,” he said. “He’ll be just pro-business enough to keep them from enthusiastically supporting a Republican challenger, and he’ll lean far enough left on other issues to take the wind out of any potential primary challenger.”

Brown tilted furthest to the left in his support for bills that expanded rights for California’s illegal immigrants.

Saying he had to act in the wake of Washington gridlock on comprehensive immigration reform legislation, Brown signed a bill that will restrict county jail officials from turning illegal immigrants over to federal authorities in addition to the driver’s license bill.

When it came to environmental issues, green groups like the Sierra Club were blocked this year in many of their efforts before the bills they championed even made it to the governor’s desk.

High-profile measures to ban plastic bags statewide and to allow the Coastal Commission to directly issue fines to landowners who violate coastal rules — rather than pursuing them in costly court cases — died as some Democrats, particularly from Southern California, sided with business.

Brown took a moderate approach on the top environmental bill that he did sign into law, Senate Bill 4 by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. It set new rules for — but stopped short of environmentalists’ calls for banning — the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which oil companies pump millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground to fracture rocks and release oil and gas.

In the end, Brown signed the bill, which requires companies to obtain permits from the state before they frack, to notify nearby property owners and to disclose the chemicals they use. Brown agreed to last-minute language from oil lobbyists that environmental groups say will allow oil companies to frack wells without doing environmental impact studies under the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA.

Brown’s efforts to find a compromise on two other high-profile issues — a major rewrite of CEQA and a multibillion-dollar water bond for the 2014 ballot to help pay for his $25 billion plan to build two huge Delta tunnels to move water south more easily — failed. Environmental groups, labor, farmers and business could not find common ground on either, so the issues are expected to be hotly debated again next year.

Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101 or Josh Richman at 510-208-6428. Read the Political Blotter at

Highlights of California’s legislative year

  • Abortion: California is the only state to increase abortion access in 2013, including a new law letting certain medical professionals other than doctors perform the most common type of first-trimester abortion.
  • Business & Labor: Of 38 bills that the California Chamber of Commerce deemed “job killers,” only one — raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour, the highest of any state — made it to Brown’s desk and became law.
  • Education: California replaced its Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests with a new system that supporters say promotes more meaningful learning, and adopted a new school funding formula giving districts more control and targeting more money to needier districts. Brown vetoed a union-backed bill to reform how teachers accused of misconduct can be fired.
  • Environment: Bills to ban plastic bags statewide and to let the Coastal Commission directly fine lawbreaking landowners died in the Legislature; there was no compromise on a major rewrite of the California Environmental Quality Act; and the state enacted a law to regulate hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas extraction, over the objections of environmentalists who sought a moratorium.
  • Guns: Brown signed bills to boost the state’s system for finding and seizing guns from convicts or mentally ill people; to tighten gun-storage laws; to crack down on high-capacity magazines; and to ban lead ammunition in hunting. But he gave the National Rifle Association seven of the 11 vetoes it wanted, including a bill that would’ve added all semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines to the state’s assault-weapons ban.
  • Immigration: Illegal immigrants won the rights to get driver’s licenses, to practice law if they’ve passed the State Bar exam, and to be protected from workplace retaliation. Another new law partially withdraws California from a federal immigration dragnet that has led to millions of deportations. But Brown vetoed a bill that would’ve let legal immigrants who are not citizens serve on juries.
  • Prisons: Brown and the Legislature struck a last-minute deal on how to respond to a federal court order to reduce the state’s still-overcrowded prison population, and won a one-month reprieve from an end-of-the-year deadline to act.
  • Water: The Legislature didn’t pass bills to replace an $11.1 billion water bond – now scheduled for November 2014, after kicking around Sacramento since 2009 – with a modified, smaller measure. But California did enact more than a dozen less ambitious water laws aimed at dealing with pollution, availability, cost and recycling.

Reprinted from Inside Bay Area (10/16/2013)