SACRAMENTO — In a final flurry of legislative action, state lawmakers approved bills to boost California’s minimum wage, grant driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally, and address the state’s overcrowded prisons.
Many of the hundreds of bills that survived the Legislature this year were big wins for Democrats on long-sought issues. They also were among Gov. Jerry Brown’s top policy priorities after clearing California’s budget hurdle and restructuring the school finance system.
The measures send the governor into next year’s expected re-election campaign with a string of victories and a track record generally favorable to the labor unions that have laid the foundation for his political success.
“Together, the Assembly, the governor and the Senate, we are focused on serial achievement. I mean, it’s one thing after the other,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in an interview early Friday after the chamber finished its business for the year.
He said a last-minute compromise to address a federal court order to lower the state inmate population “has the potential to change the course of, and the direction of, our criminal justice system.”
The proposal asks federal judges to delay their end-of-year deadline for reducing the prison population, and would dedicate millions of dollars to rehabilitation programs if they agree.
Several of the bills receiving the most attention were sought by the most liberal constituents of the Democratic Party. One was AB60 to allow immigrants in the country illegally to apply for California driver’s licenses. Brown said he supports the bill and hopes it sends a message to Washington about immigration reform. Another bill, AB10, would boost the state’s $8 hourly minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016.
California Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Denise Davis said the proposed increase, which Brown helped broker, “will be hard on California small businesses and on workers.” Employers already are facing higher health care and unemployment insurance costs, she said.
Still, the session did not produce the liberal onslaught some conservatives had warned about after Democrats won two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Legislature. The chamber said the minimum wage legislation was the only one of 38 bills it had identified as “job killers” to survive.
Brown, a pragmatist who generally takes the long view in pushing for reforms, had sought to broker a middle road throughout this year’s legislative session.
He pushed for fiscal restraint in the $96.3 billion state budget earlier this year and warned Democrats that he would not approve tax increases. It was a promise he made to voters last November when they endorsed his initiative to raise the statewide sales tax and income taxes on high-income earners.
“The people have given us seven years of extra taxes. Let us follow the wisdom of Joseph, pay down our debts and store up reserves against the leaner times that will surely come,” Brown said in his January State of the State address.
The extra income helped avoid more cuts to California schools and paved the way for the school finance reform Brown sought. That will direct proportionately more money to schools with high numbers of students from lower-income families and students who have limited English proficiency. The voter-approved tax increases are set to expire about the time Brown would leave office if he wins a fourth term next November.
More than a dozen gun-control bills were approved during the session, on top of California’s already restrictive weapons laws, but not all the measures proposed made it through the Legislature. Among those that did not make the cut was a proposal to ban ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.
Some of the legislation was not as robust as Brown or other Democrats initially wanted.
After starting the year with a half-dozen bills aimed at restricting the oil and gas drilling technique known as fracking, one compromise piece emerged this week that did not totally please environmentalists or oil companies. SB4 will require greater disclosure of the chemicals used in the process.
Brown also compromised slightly on how to answer a federal court’s ruling requiring the state to reduce its prison population by 9,600 inmates by the end of the year. If the federal judges do not agree to extend the deadline, Brown’s original plan to lease cells in private prisons and local jails will take effect.
He also did not get the comprehensive reforms he had sought to the California Environmental Quality Act. Some of those changes were contained in a bill by Steinberg regarding a new NBA arena planned for downtown Sacramento. At Brown’s urging, Steinberg’s bill added provisions that address some long-standing complaints about CEQA, including removing parking standards for infill projects and speeds up some legal challenges.
Steinberg blamed business groups that he said “wanted the whole pie.”
Still, after years of focusing on making budget cuts, legislative leaders praised the Legislature for what they believe are major accomplishments sent to the governor this year.
“I believe that history and the record will show that we clearly focused on maintaining fiscal responsibility, increasing prosperity and opportunity, and investing in California’s future,” said Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles.
Associated Press writers Laura Olson and Don Thompson contributed to this report.