Thursday was a day of emotion and controversy at the California State Capitol — illuminating some of the issues likely to gain even more political intensity with just a month and a half left in the legislative session and the November general election looming on the horizon.
First up: Involuntary servitude. Over the opposition of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, a powerful legislative committee advanced a proposed constitutional amendment to ban involuntary servitude in California. The state’s constitution currently prohibits involuntary servitude “except to punish crime” — allowing the state prison system to pay inmates as little as 8 cents an hour for jobs including food service, custodial work and construction, according to a legislative analysis. (Inmate firefighters, on whom California has long depended to fight wildfires across the state, earn between $1.45 and $3.90 per day, plus an extra $1 per hour in emergencies.)
- Aaron Edwards of the state Department of Finance: “While we are sensitive to the intent of this resolution, the Department of Finance does have an opposed position to its potentially significant general fund costs. … The largest potential impact is to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which currently employs around 65,000 incarcerated persons to support essential prison operations, such as by providing cooking, cleaning and laundry services. If the department were required to pay those workers minimum wage, which is one potential outcome in our view, the cost could be in the range of $1.5 billion annually.”
- State Sen. Sydney Kamlager, the Los Angeles Democrat and congressional candidate carrying the bill, was incensed. “My blood pressure just shot off the chain listening to the Department of Finance,” she said. “This country has been having economic discussions for hundreds of years around slavery and involuntary servitude and indentured servitude. Obviously, you keep people as slaves and you keep them as indentured servants … because it is cheaper to do so. … I mean, I think this is what we are talking about that led to the Civil War.”
- Holding back tears, she added, “I’m also just deeply insulted that all of the (bills) that we heard today, this is the only one where Department of Finance has a file” outlining the fiscal impacts. “And this is the only one where Department of Finance says ‘Hey, we could deal with litigation.’ … I mean, when we have a resolution on Juneteenth!”
The Senate Appropriations Committee passed Kamlager’s bill; it now faces a vote in front of the full Senate, as does another proposed amendment to enshrine the right to abortion and contraception in California’s constitution. In order to land on voters’ ballots in November, the measures must be approved by two-thirds of lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly by June 30.
Another big topic: Guns. California would be the first state in the nation to require gun owners to carry liability insurance for the negligent or accidental use of their firearms under a new bill from state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat — the latest addition to a stack of ambitious gun control legislation.
- Although the bill was just introduced Thursday, it’s already passed several key committees. Using a controversial tactic called gut-and-amend, lawmakers inserted the text of Skinner’s proposal into a bill originally dealing with employer wage withholding — which had already cleared major legislative hurdles. Skinner’s bill can now pick up where the original one left off.
Last but not least: Vaccines. In a sign that Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco’s bill to allow minors to get vaccinated without parental consent could face an uphill battle, the state Assembly voted to insert amendments raising the minimum age from 12 to 15.