A quarter-century ago — rather suddenly — California began shifting rapidly from a two-party state into what became utter dominance by one party, the Democrats.
The reasons for that transformation are still being debated, but it is a political fact of life in the nation’s most populous state, nowhere more evident than in the state Capitol, an arena for duels between competing economic interests.
Business groups found themselves playing defense against a quartet of foes closely aligned with the dominant Democrats — labor unions, environmental advocates, consumer activists and personal injury lawyers — especially after a business-friendly Republican governor, Pete Wilson, was succeeded by Democrat Gray Davis in 2000.
A pattern developed. Annually, the four groups would introduce their legislative agendas and the California Chamber of Commerce, the state’s leading business lobby, would choose a few dozen of those it considered to be most costly or bothersome and label them “job killers.”
Coupled with the cultivation of moderate, pro-business legislators, it’s been a remarkably successful strategy for the chamber and its allies. Year after year, only a few bills placed on the list have made it into law. Most are ground up, without formal votes, in the legislative machinery, some are amended to shed the label and governors of both parties tend to veto the few that reach them.
Since 1997, when the program began, the “job killer” label has been applied to 761 bills and just 62 became law, a 92% kill ratio.
The 2020 legislative session is unlike any other due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Legislature recessed for nearly two months as part of a statewide lockdown to deal with the crisis and as it reconvened this month, legislative leaders put tight restrictions on the number and subject matter of bills they would process.
It’s also affected the Chamber of Commerce’s annual job killer exercise. There are just 10 measures on its 2020 list, most of them related to the pandemic and/or benefits for workers whose employment is affected by the crisis.
Three of the bills would expand coverage for workers’ compensation benefits, which are financed by employers — roughly paralleling Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decree that ill workers deemed to be essential will be eligible for benefits without having to prove they were infected on the job.
With potential annual costs running into many billions of dollars, employers have opposed the blanket loosening of workers’compensation eligibility, saying it will make economic recovery more difficult.
The same argument is advanced against one of the 10 bills that would hike unemployment insurance benefits, which are also financed by employers through payroll taxes, and two others that extend employees’ rights to leaves of absence.
While the number and focus of bills on this year’s version of the job killer list has changed, one factor remains the same: the prominence of Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat.
Gonzalez, a former labor union official, has been one of the very few legislators to have a successful record of getting her bills enacted despite being given the job killer epithet and takes obvious pride in that fact. She has two bills on the 2020 list, one of the three expanding workers’ compensation benefits and another that would require corporate officials to file, under penalty of perjury, that they have not violated any state labor laws.
The chamber says the bill amounts to “public shaming of corporations and interference with corporate formation based on arbitrary, unclear and unfair standards.”
Thus, the annual battle begins.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary