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More On Governor Empty Suit’s Vetoes

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A waiter sets up a table in the outdoor dining area on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in which Gov. Gavin Newsom, who later called it a “bad mistake,” attended a birthday dinner at the French Laundry in Yountville. (Courtesy photo)

The desire of commenters to defend Gavin Newsom’s many vetoes of great bills is just jaw-dropping to me. But they do bring up one good question, which is why doesn’t the legislature override these vetoes. Dayen explores this issue.

What is as rare as the California condor is the legislature actually attempting to override those vetoes with a two-thirds vote. Since a run of four overrides in an eight-month stretch of Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor in 1980, not a single one of the over 8,700 gubernatorial vetoes has been touched. This has held since 2012, when Democrats obtained a two-thirds supermajority in the legislature, meaning that any veto could be overridden if legislative Democrats stuck together. Indeed, bills with unanimous or near-unanimous support consistently get vetoed and never heard from again.

This impotence from the legislature, an abdication of its check on the executive, is an artifact of a rigid legislative calendar and an extreme top-down deference to power. It profoundly distorts what a state that prides itself as a policy laboratory for the nation can actually accomplish.

Some of Newsom’s veto messages, like the anti–caste discrimination bill and the driverless truck bill, argue that existing regulations are sufficient. But many of the vetoes were justified due to costs. Newsom repeated a line in dozens of vetoes about how the legislature sent him bills with fiscal impact that would “add nearly $19 billion of unaccounted costs in the budget.” But $19 billion is the total number, which includes bills he signed. And some vetoes prevented the tiniest of expenditures.

Newsom claimed that the ombudsperson for public records, for example, would cost “tens of millions” of dollars, a rounding error in California’s $300 billion annual budget and $37.2 billion budget reserve. (Apparently, maintaining the most stringent fiscal discipline justifies repeatedly violating public-records laws.) The master plan for climate-resilient schools is even cheaper, costing “up to $10 million” according to Newsom’s veto message. That’s .003 percent of the total state budget, at most. For a bill that would have authorized San Francisco to continue an existing pilot that gives low-income jurors $100 a day instead of $15, Newsom didn’t even bother to estimate a figure, merely claiming it was too expensive.

On bills without budgetary implications, Newsom still fretted about costs, like the potential increased tax on employers that would come with allowing striking workers to access unemployment insurance. With the insulin co-pay cap, Newsom highlighted his high-profile effort to have the state manufacture insulin itself, leading to costs even lower than the cap. But that program is not yet operative, meaning that many Californians will unnecessarily pay more for insulin while they wait for state manufacturing to ramp up.

But the insulin bill has another important characteristic: It passed unanimously through both the State Assembly (79-0) and the Senate (39-0). The climate-resilient schools bill passed 39-0 in the Senate and 76-1 in the Assembly. Numerous other vetoes this year and in the past were exercised on bills with strong bipartisan or even unanimous support. It would be trifling to override the veto, yet it never happens. Why?

One obstacle is the legislative schedule in California, which involves a series of deadlines worsened by procrastination. Bills must be introduced by February, passed out of committee by April, passed out of their chamber by May, and passed through both houses by the end of August. Very few bills get done in advance of this schedule, so at the end of August, there’s typically this giant pile of legislation awaiting a governor’s signature.

The legislature then leaves for the year, and the governor decides what to sign afterward. Only months later does the legislature come back in a position to consider any veto override. In even-numbered years, the legislature coming back is the newly elected one, making veto overrides impossible as it’s a new session. In odd-numbered years, the monthslong separation from vetoes typically allows the frustration to dissipate. Even if legislators are still annoyed, there’s just no tradition of veto overrides, and no pressure for them in the famously politically disengaged state.

The bigger issue is a structural lack of interest in defending legislative work. The California legislature is an extremely top-down place, where the leadership exercises strict control over events. It is mostly their prerogative to pursue a veto override, and they never do. Conversely, the rank and file, which is constantly turning over because of the state’s constrictive term limits, follows the game plan as a means for career advancement. Crossing your own party’s governor could have consequences in the next election.

This last is the biggest issue I would expect. The legislature just isn’t very serious about governing because, like many states long held by Democrats, the party is basically a machine that will crush earnest backbenchers who challenge the staid leadership. This sounds a lot like Rhode Island, though things have improved here in the decade plus I’ve lived here. It would be nice if the state legislature took this stuff seriously. It may take a primary or two to help with this.

In any case, some of these vetoes, especially the insulin and jury duty ones, are just atrocious and utterly indefensible.

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