The many ways the Legislature wants to change California’s constitution

A correctional officer works at one of the housing units at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo

When a bill dies in the Legislature, a hail Mary move is to try to get lawmakers to put it before voters and enshrine it in the state constitution. It’s a tall order that requires a two-thirds vote in both houses — but it’s not impossible.

It’s the route Assembly Republicans will take when they kick off their campaign today for a fentanyl bill that both the Assembly and Senate rejected this session. Known as Alexandra’s Law, the constitutional amendment would require those convicted of a fentanyl-related offense to receive written notice that if someone were to die as a direct consequence of their crime, they can be charged with homicide. 

Since California adopted its constitution in 1879, it has been amended more than 500 times, longtime lobbyist Chris Micheli told me.

Amendments aren’t subject to the same legislative deadlines as bills, and “a critical thing that everyone forgets — the governor plays no role.”

That includes constitutional amendments placed on the ballot through the initiative process and those put before voters by the Legislature.   

For legislative amendments to appear on the March 2024 primary ballot, they’ll have to pass before the Legislature adjourns its 2023 session in mid-September. There’s already a legislative amendment on the March ballot, to repeal the constitutional provision requiring local voter approval for public housing

To put amendments on the November 2024 ballot, legislators have until June 2024. So far, there are six measures on the general election ballot, including two constitutional amendments by initiative

Timing is important, says Micheli: Usually, when a legislator introduces an amendment during the first year of session (an odd-numbered, non-election year such as the current one), they’ll hold it long enough so that it can pass through the second chamber next year, just before the election. 

A few notable amendments under consideration this session:

  • ACA 4: Would allow prisoners, who are still currently incarcerated, to vote. It has passed committee and is before the full Assembly.
  • ACA 5: Would repeal Proposition 8 from 2008 and remove language defining marriage as between a man and a woman. It is in committee.
  • ACA 8: Would ban involuntary servitude as a form of criminal punishment, similar to an amendment that failed last year.
  • ACA 10: Would recognize housing as a constitutional right. It is scheduled for debate in the Assembly Housing Committee on Wednesday.
  • SCA 1: Would revise laws on recalling state officials and the governor. It remains in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
  • SCA 7: Would give Californians the right to join a union and to negotiate with their employers. It is scheduled before the Senate Labor Committee on June 14.

And some that have died or are on life support:

  • ACA 3: Would allow wealth taxes and lift the “Gann limit” on government spending. It is shelved for the year.
  • ACA 9: Would make the elected state school superintendent an appointed position. It has been withdrawn by its author, Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty from Sacramento.
  • SCA 4: Would repeal the “death tax” on inherited property. It failed in committee, but proponents may seek an initiative.

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