California's social policy sweep: Will other states follow suit?

The state passed a spate of sweeping reforms to controversial issues this season – including mandating equal pay for women, allowing assisted suicide and expanding health benefits to undocumented minors.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
California Gov. Jerry Brown, sitting center, surrounded by government officials, signs landmark legislation by Senate President pro Tempore Kevin De Leon, third from left, to combat climate change at a ceremony at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, Oct. 7. California enacted some of the nation's most aggressive social polices this year, including de Leon's SB350 which calls for increasing the state's renewable electricity use to 50 percent and doubling energy efficiency in existing buildings by 2030.

In a jam-packed legislative session, California lawmakers enacted a sweeping range of social policies, including bills mandating equal pay to women, allowing assisted suicide for terminally-ill people, and requiring student vaccinations.

The 675 bills signed this year by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, point to a commitment by state lawmakers to aggressively pursue a host of progressive goals – including comprehensive climate change legislation.

Observers say their efforts to actively legislate on controversial issues like assisted suicide may become a model for Congress and other states frequently mired in political in-fighting, though the state has side-stepped some long-vexing economic issues.

“Both the vaccine bill and the right-to-die legislation will be seriously looked at by other states," Sherry Bebitch-Jeffe, senior political science fellow at the University of Southern California, told the Associated Press.“If it can pass here and it is perceived to work here, I think the proponents have a big positive jolt out of the victory in California.”

The state has also made strides in tackling the thorny issue of illegal immigration, moving from denying government services to undocumented workers 20 years ago to attempting to create a path to “state citizenship” for them in a series of bills passed over the last few years, as The Monitor’s Gloria Goodale reported.

Following previous moves to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses, pay in-state tuition rates at local colleges, and have access to financial aid traditionally denied to non-citizens, the state is now allowing undocumented minors to receive health insurance through the state’s Medi-Cal program and state health exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act.

“California is far ahead of other states,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate dean of the school of Public Policy at the University of California in Riverside, told The Monitor, calling the immigration proposals a model for other states and Congress.

“California is done waiting in vain for action on immigration from the federal government,” he added.

Particularly significant is the sweeping climate change legislation, which pledges to increase the state’s use of renewable energy sources to 50 percent by 2030.

The bill continues the state’s efforts to take the lead on environmental issues, ranging from signing a memorandum of understanding with several agencies in China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent of their levels in 1990 to beginning a program to provide electric cars for the nation’s third-largest police force in Los Angeles.

But the defeat of one key provision championed by Mr. Brown, which would have pledged to cut the state’s oil use in half within 15 years, may point to a schism between the state’s traditionally progressive base and a growing number of moderate Democrats and Republicans in the state capital.

Seemingly unbowed by the defeat, which came after a fierce lobbying effort by the oil industry, Mr. Brown quipped, “I'd say oil has won the skirmish, but they've lost the bigger battle.”

Business interests also blocked efforts to tax tobacco and oil, as lawmakers side-stepped some long-standing economic issues, such as road maintenance estimated to cost $59 billion and a $1 billion shortfall for Medi-Cal, which provides health insurance for the poor.

But several laws passed this season may provide a model for other states, including the landmark assisted suicide bill – which Mr. Brown, a lifelong Catholic, initially appear to hesitate about signing.

The state also passed a measure that would bar many people with concealed weapons permits from bringing weapons onto college campuses and a law to specifically ban the name “Redskins” for school sports teams.

“It's the panoply of issues that California, if not in a leadership position, is always close to it," Larry Gerston, a professor emeritus at San Jose State University, told the AP. “The various voices are represented here much more, in more forceful ways.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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