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California Lawmakers Keep Killing Bills By Not Voting On Them. Do The Rules Need To Change?

Assemblymember Steve Bennett walks the floor during the final session of the year at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Sept. 14, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

STATE WATCH

CA LAWMAKERS - From prohibiting non-disclosure agreements in bill negotiations to protecting utility ratepayers, bills keep dying this year despite lawmakers refusing to say “no” when it came time to vote. Is it time for the rules to change? 

Among the most controversial bills that died this spring was a measure prompted by allegations that Gov. Gavin Newsom secured a lucrative benefit for a billionaire supporter by exempting his restaurants from a minimum wage increase.

Newsom dismissed the allegations as “absurd,” but KCRA 3 reported that the public might never get a full accounting of what happened because participants to the bill negotiations signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) that threatened them with legal action if they spoke about the issue.

The controversy prompted a bill banning NDAs for legislative negotiations, but the bill died last month even though only one Democratic member of the Assembly Committee on Elections voted against it. It failed because five other Democrats on the committee didn’t vote.

As CalMatters revealed in April, not voting is a common practice for California legislators. Last year, at least 15 bills died due to lack of votes instead of lawmakers actually voting “no” to kill them. So far this year, a database at CalMatters’ Digital Democracy indicates that at least 12 bills have died because lawmakers declined to vote. 

Insiders say it’s a way for legislators to be polite to colleagues and perhaps avoid a “no” vote on their own legislation. But critics say it’s also a way for legislators to dodge responsibility for their decisions.

“Some will say that those bills were tough votes for lawmakers,” said Mike Gatto, a former Democratic legislator from Los Angeles. “But one must remember that the whole reason why the public elects these lawmakers is for them to take tough votes.”

The Legislature’s bill-tracking website doesn’t distinguish whether a legislator declined to vote, was absent or if the lawmaker announced they were formally abstaining from voting.
Now, with the launch of Digital Democracy, the public has easy access to video and transcripts that show just how often legislators are present in hearings and even engage in discussion, sometimes highly critical of the legislation, before staying silent during the call for a vote. Some legislators say the practice should be changed.

“I think it is appropriate for legislators to basically vote ‘yes’ or vote ‘no,’ ” Santa Ana Democratic Sen. Tom Umberg, a former federal prosecutor, recently toldCBS News for a story done in collaboration with CalMatters. “But, you know, that is the system that we have. Should we change it? Probably.”

Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas and Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuiredidn’t respond to CalMatters’ requests to discuss whether the Legislature’s rules on voting should change. 

Public safety, ratepayer protection bills die

Among the bills that died recently from California Democrats not voting were several involving public safety issues. They include a bill that would have prohibited sexually violent predators from being released into communities unless they had a place to live. Another would have increased penalties for property crimes. A third would have made it harder for police to charge people with a crime for filing false complaints against officers.

Another bill that died for lack of votes would restrict the controversial practice of gas and electric utilities from using ratepayer money for political lobbying. Senate Bill 938 was in response to a Sacramento Bee investigation last summer that revealed SoCalGas charged at least $36 million to ratepayers for political lobbying to oppose California policies aimed at addressing the climate crisis.

Environmentalists and utility watchdog groups were outraged, arguing that ratepayers’ bills should only reflect the cost to deliver electricity or gas to their homes. They said shareholders should foot the bill for political lobbying.  

But Sen. Dave Min, a Democrat from Irvine, saw his bill to ban the practice fail in April before the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee. The committee has 18 members, so the bill needed at least 10 “yes” votes to advance. In two separate votes, six members of the committee declined to vote. When combined with Republicans’ “no” votes, the abstentions were enough to kill Min’s bill.

At its April 16 hearing, Democratic Sens. Bill Dodd of Napa and Angelique Ashbyfrom Sacramento questioned whether the legislation would help consumers since lobbying costs represent a small fraction of a utility’s expenses. In the end, they both declined to vote. 

Joining them were fellow Democrats Josh NewmanAnna CaballeroSusan Rubio and the committee’s chairperson, Steven Bradford. Dodd’s office was the only one to respond to CalMatters’ interview request. 

“I respect the author and his intent with the bill, but there were unanswered questions about the impact it would have on grants for fire prevention activities,” Dodd said in an emailed statement. “So I reserved voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ until those questions were answered.”

Not voting on ‘Paneragate’ bill

Several legislators who helped kill the bill banning NDAs from legislative negotiations were also present during that hearing. 

The four Democratic Assemblymembers on the elections committee who declined to vote on the NDA ban are Marc Berman of Cupertino, Steve Bennettof Oxnard, Akilah Weber of La Mesa and Matt Haney of San Francisco. Evan Lowof Cupertino, who’s running for Congress, was absent for the hearing. The absence is recorded on the Legislature’s tally of votes the same as the lawmakers who stayed silent. None of them responded to interview requests. 

It was a controversial bill in part because it dealt with a scandal about the governor that broke in February when Bloomberg News reported that the Panera Bread chain appeared to be exempt from a new law that raised the state’s minimum wage to $20 for fast food workers. In the Bloomberg investigation, sources said the Newsom administration sought the exemption to benefit a billionaire Panera Bread franchise owner who is a major Newsom donor. 

After KCRA revealed that negotiators working on the minimum wage bill were required to sign NDAs, Republican Assemblymember Vince Fong introduced the bill to ban the practice for legislative negotiations. Labor groups opposed the bill, and business groups were split. Fong, who is running for Congress, didn’t return a request for comment.

During the hearing, Assemblymembers Berman and Weber spoke with the bill’s author, but still declined to vote.

“This is an extremely important bill that deals with a very important issue,” Weber said in the hearing. She also suggested the bill was drafted too quickly and she had questions about “whether or not the bill was too broad.”

Gatto, a former Democratic Assemblymember, said it was especially galling that lawmakers refused to vote on the non-disclosure agreement bill, given the legislation “itself involves the sanctity of the (legislative) process.”

“It just feels dirtier somehow,” Gatto said.

(Ryan Sabalow is a Digital Democracy reporter for CalMatters where this article was first published.)