Ending the suspense: Child trafficking, fentanyl bills can still become law

The state Senate Appropriations Committee session on suspense file day at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Sept. 1, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

Democratic lawmakers advanced a contentious proposal by one of their Republican colleagues to increase penalties for child sex trafficking, but held a series of borrowing measures for housing and school infrastructure during dual hearings today to cull the legislative agenda before the end of session in two weeks.

The biannual rite of passage, known as the suspense file, allows leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature to consider the potential cost of hundreds of pending bills — and kill some without as much public scrutiny — ahead of looming deadlines for members to take them up on the floor.

The Senate Appropriations Committee announced the fates of 489 bills assessed to have a significant fiscal effect on the state, while its Assembly counterpart sorted through 276 measures, in rapid-fire hearings without any formal debate. Those that survived already cleared their house of origin and now must pass the other chamber before Sept. 14 to move to the governor’s desk.

Supporters had anxiously awaited the outcome of Senate Bill 14, which would reclassify human trafficking of a minor as a serious felony subject to California’s three-strikes law, after progressive Democrats killed it in committee earlier this summer over concerns that it could ensnare victims who were forced to help their traffickers.

When the move set off a political firestorm, Gov. Gavin Newsom and new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas swiftly intervened to revive the measure. Sen. Shannon Grove, the Bakersfield Republican carrying the bill, spent weeks rallying the public to pressure the Assembly Appropriations Committee not to sideline it again on the suspense file.

The committee passed the measure today with an amendment to “exempt human trafficking victims from the serious felony provision.” Assemblymember Chris Holden, the Pasadena Democrat who leads the committee, said the amendment was narrowly crafted “to make sure anyone, including a victim, is not further victimized by being caught up in a situation where they need to have some relief as well.”

Following the hearing, Grove told reporters that she believes those protections already exist in state law, but she was not opposed to the amendment, which does not undermine the measure’s intent.

“I didn’t want any excuse for them not to be able to vote for this bill,” she said. “If it allowed them to have the affirmation they need to move the bill forward, I’m grateful that they did that.”

Legislators advocating for more funding for infrastructure projects weren’t so blessed.

The Assembly committee shelved SB 28, a proposed $15.5 billion bond issue for school and college facilities by Sen. Steve Glazer, an Orinda Democrat, turning it into a two-year measure that can be reconsidered next session. The Senate committee similarly held Assembly Bill 247, a $14 billion bond proposal for K-12 schools and community colleges by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, a Torrance Democrat, as well as AB 1657, a $10 billion affordable housing bond by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, an Oakland Democrat.

Only AB 531, Newsom’s $4.7 billion bond that is central to his mental health blueprint, advanced off the suspense file, clearing the way for it to appear solo on the March ballot.

With lawmakers introducing tens of billions of dollars in bond measures amid an economic downturn that has tipped California into a budget deficit, the governor has been pushing the Legislature to limit what goes before voters, suggesting the state can handle no more than about $26 billion in additional debt.

Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Glendale Democrat who leads the Senate appropriations committee, noted that the shelved bond bills could be taken up again next year and appear on the November ballot. He declined to take questions following the hearing.

Fentanyl bills advance

California’s surging fentanyl crisis has roiled the Legislature this session. Republicans and law enforcement officials led a push to crack down on dealers, while progressive Democrats moved to block many of the measures that they argue would only serve to repopulate prisons without addressing the underlying issue of addiction. Hearings have been marked by emotional testimony from Californians who lost family members to fentanyl overdoses.

An unhoused resident injects a Narcan nasal spray into the nose of another individual who appears to have overdosed in Los Angeles on Aug. 25, 2022. Photo by Jae C. Hong, AP Photo

At today’s suspense file hearings, the appropriation committees held AB 19, by Assemblymember Joe Patterson, a Rocklin Republican, which would require public schools to stock Narcan. But they advanced several others, including:

  • AB 33, by Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains, a Bakersfield Democrat, which would establish a task force to address fentanyl addiction and overdoses;
  • AB 474, by Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez, a Pomona Democrat, which would promote cooperation between state and local law enforcement to fight fentanyl trafficking;
  • AB 701, by Assemblymember Carlos Villapudua, a Stockton Democrat, which would increase fines for dealers by putting fentanyl in the same category as heroin and cocaine;
  • AB 890 by Patterson, which would require defendants granted probation for fentanyl-related crimes to complete a drug education program;
  • SB 19, by Sen. Kelly Seyarto, a Murrieta Republican, which would create an anti-fentanyl abuse task force.

“I think what shifted the tides is that…the problem is becoming exponentially worse,” Seyarto said. “And after a while, it’s hard to ignore.”

Protecting LGBTQ students 

A brewing battle over the rights of transgender students escalated this week when state Attorney General Rob Bonta sued a Chino school district to overturn a new policy requiring parental notification when students change their gender identity, while supporters launched a ballot initiative campaign to take the policy statewide.

California’s liberal Legislature has overwhelmingly backed transgender students. The appropriations committees today advanced SB 760, by Sen. Josh Newman, a Fullerton Democrat, which would require all-gender restrooms in every school, and AB 5, by Assemblymember Rick Zbur, a Santa Monica Democrat, which would develop more LGBTQ cultural competency training for teachers.

Parents, students and supporters of parental rights rally at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 21, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

Following a showdown between Newsom and the Temecula school board over its refusal to adopt a state social studies curriculum because it mentioned the late gay rights activist Harvey Milk, Assemblymember Corey Jackson, a Moreno Valley Democrat, is pushing AB 1078, which would fine school districts that ban textbooks and other instructional material that include diverse perspectives. It also passed off the suspense file.

Other highlights of the suspense file results:

Labor issues: The Assembly committee advanced SB 525 by Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat, which would raise the minimum wage for health care workers to $25 per hour, despite warnings from state finance officials that it would cost California government agencies alone nearly $1 billion annually. Holden said he heard a deal on the proposal was “very close.”

But a bill by Assemblymember Heath Flora, a Ripon Republican, that would have given automatic pay raises to Cal Fire firefighters was held. 

Paid leave: A closely-watched measure to increase paid sick days survived, but not completely. SB 616 by Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Long Beach Democrat, would have upped the number from three to seven a year, matching what happened during the pandemic. The Assembly appropriations committee reduced that to five days before sending the bill to the floor.

Child brides: A bill to make California the 11th state to completely ban child marriages had already been weakened to merely make illegal some unions involving people under the age of 18 done through unsanctioned spiritual ceremonies. Today, SB 404 by Sen. Aisha Wahab, a Fremont Democrat, was shelved entirely.

Elections: Several bills and proposed constitutional amendments to change California  elections passed through the day’s hearings. Except, that is, for a Republican constitutional amendment (and accompanying bill) that sought to transfer the job of writing ballot measure titles and summaries from the elected attorney general to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s office. 

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