California Gov. Newsom suprises, disappoints with vetoes

Thursday, October 1, 2020

By Adam Beam and Don Thompson for the St. Louis Post Dispatch

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Labor unions in California celebrated earlier this month when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed laws expanding paid family leave and making the coronavirus eligible for workers' compensation benefits — big victories against big business that had fought those changes.

But two weeks later, labor unions were shocked to see Newsom veto two of their biggest issues: A bill that would have extended health and safety protections to domestic workers and another that sought to guarantee laid-off hospitality workers would be first in line to get their jobs back once the coronavirus is better in hand and those industries start rehiring.

Nearly two years into his tenure as governor of the nation's most populous state, Newsom has proven to be unpredictable when it comes to signing and vetoing proposed laws. He proudly declares he is “not an ideologue” and evaluates every bill that crosses his desk on its merits.

That approach can be frustrating to some of his allies, who have been surprised to find some of their key issues blocked by the governor, whose pen carries outsized influence given the Legislature's unwillingness to override vetoes.

“If someone said, 'Name Gavin Newsom's top two priorities,' I think I would struggle,” said Jennifer Fearing, a lobbyist for nonprofits. “I don't know that he's trying to be a governor who could be pinpointed into priorities.”

Newsom, a Democrat and former San Francisco mayor, made homelessness his priority in February when he devoted his entire “State of the State” address to the topic. But Wednesday, Newsom vetoed a bill that would have established an “Office to End Homelessness” and another one that would have made it state policy that every person has “a right to safe, decent, and affordable housing.”

In a message to the state Legislature, Newsom said he vetoed the right-to-housing bill because he said it would cost too much. He said he vetoed the proposed agency because “separating policy development on homelessness from that on health care or housing will lead to more fragmentation, not less.”

“Homelessness has been and remains one of my top priorities,” said Newsom, who a month after his State of the State address imposed the country's first statewide coronavirus shutdown.

On criminal justice, he signed a bill authored by Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager shortening probation terms. But he vetoed her bipartisan-backed bill to fund community organizations that would handle some crisis calls that currently go to police so officers could concentrate on law enforcement.

“It’s hard to discern a pattern with him, and you don’t know who is speaking to him and you don’t really know the pressure point," Kamlager said. “I think there were a lot questions around inconsistencies.”

Wednesday was the deadline for Newsom to act on bills lawmakers passed this year. It capped a tumultuous legislative session that was delayed three times because of the virus.

At least three lawmakers tested positive, including a Republican senator who exposed nearly the entire 11-member GOP caucus in the session's final week. That forced all but one Senate Republican to participate remotely in the session's final days, significantly slowing down the chamber's process for passing bills.

In a normal year, more than 1,000 bills would have made it to Newsom's desk for his consideration. This year, it was just a few hundred.

“For the most part, if you look at the whole suite of bills that were signed, it was a pretty good year — considering COVID — for progressive values," said Assemblyman Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose. But he was disappointed in some of the vetoes, offering "that if we’re going to do a balancing act, that the balancing should be on the side of workers who are literally struggling to survive through this pandemic.”

The coronavirus also made it harder to communicate, relegating the delicate art of politicking to video calls — when they could be scheduled — instead of typical negotiations in hallways and backrooms.

On top of that, Newsom had to deal with statewide racial justice protests and wildfires that have burned a record 6,000 square miles (15,500 square kilometers) and counting.

“It impacted advocacy in every conceivable way,” Fearing said.

Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation, said it's rare for any group to get everything it wants out of a legislative session, no matter who the governor is.

“On balance, we’re happy with most of what he did,” Smith said. “But there were some big disappointments.”