Real legislative accomplishment requires more than enacting a bunch of new laws. The 2013 legislative session resulted in Gov. Jerry Brown signing more than 800 of the bills that reached his desk. But many of those new laws are politically driven trivia, not serious policy. Legislators need to set aside the narrow pandering, and focus on crucial public business.
Many of the laws that took effect on the first of the year, and some that will roll out over the next few months, do little to address state needs. Yet Brown last year warned against needless legislating, saying the state’s future required more than “producing hundreds of new laws each year” and adding more minutia to the state’s “already detailed and turgid legal system.”
Legislators, however, once again found the lure of minor bills irresistible. The Legislature assumed, for example, that most gun owners lack common sense, and passed a host of new laws aimed at greater scrutiny for them, including AB 231. While undoubtedly well-intentioned — making it a misdemeanor to store a loaded firearm where it is accessible to children — we find it hard to believe that many gun owners store their firearms loaded, much less within the reach of children.
SB 135 earmarked $80 million to build and maintain for five years an earthquake early-warning system that will give Californians 60 seconds to find cover. The effectiveness of such a short warning seems questionable and could give many residents a false sense of security.
The legislative session was also a big one for immigration bills, with AB 60, which lets residents who have entered the country illegally obtain driver’s licenses by Jan. 1, 2015, and AB 1024, which allows the undocumented to practice law. Brown did, however, veto a bill to allow illegal immigrants to sit on juries because that is a pleasure of citizenship, the governor reasoned, that only citizens and legal residents should have to undertake.
To be sure, not all 800 laws taking effect this year are of dubious value. AB 1412 and SB 209 reversed a ruling by the Franchise Tax Board that would have collected $120 million in retroactive taxes from about 2,000 state residents for taking advantage of a state tax break that was legal at the time, but that an appellate court ruled unconstitutional in 2012.
At the same time, the Legislature has no shortage of pressing business to address. Another dry winter, for example, has highlighted the need for California to shore up an endangered system of water exports and improve storage capacity. The state still needs to make reforms that can avoid another prison crowding crisis, and ensure the success of the 2011 realignment that shifted some felons and parolees to county control. And the state still has the massive long-term cost of retirement payouts to address, along with a new school financing approach that will need careful oversight.
Those are hardly the only big issues facing California, of course. But progress on the state’s priority needs requires serious thought and sustained effort, not just another flurry of trivial, irrelevant or needless laws.