Trump presidency puts California Legislature in defense mode

The California State Assembly at the Capitol in Sacramento on Dec.  1, 2014.
The California State Assembly at the Capitol in Sacramento on Dec. 1, 2014.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

As California lawmakers return to Sacramento on Wednesday, liberal dreams of expanding safety-net benefits and providing health coverage to immigrants are giving way to a new vision revolving around a feverish push to protect gains racked up in the past.

After years of pushing forward a progressive agenda, legislative Democrats will be pushing back against conservative policies from President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican Congress.

Instead of expanding Medi-Cal health coverage to adult immigrants who can't prove they're legally in the country, Democrats are now concentrating on how to retain health coverage for those who already have it. And anti-poverty groups are focused on preventing cuts to food stamp and welfare programs rather than trying to expand them as planned.

"There is so much uncertainty at the federal level, because they're talking about some really drastic policy choices that could have a really negative impact on California," said Scott Graves, research director for the California Budget & Policy Center, a left-leaning research group.

Last year was a particularly effective one for California liberals. The Legislature extended the nation's most ambitious climate change programs, raised the minimum wage to $15 and toughened gun laws. Lawmakers boosted overtime for farmworkers, expanded welfare benefits and enacted a sweeping array of anti-tobacco measures.

This year had all the makings of continuing the trend. Democrats will arrive Wednesday with supermajorities in both chambers — enough to advance their own agenda without GOP interference if they stand united.

Notably, though, Democrats took their first action as a supermajority not to advance a contentious public policy objective but to send a message to Trump.

Right after they took the oath of office last month, Democrats in the Assembly and Senate suspended legislative rules to immediately approve resolutions urging the incoming administration to keep a program allowing hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who are in the country illegally to stay.

While the California Legislature has broad authority to chart its own agenda, it relies significantly on federal dollars. According to the state Department of Finance, California gets $96 billion from the federal government, a figure almost as large as the state's $122 billion general fund.

Those federal funds cover a massive share of the budget for health care, food stamps, welfare and other safety-net programs.

Liberals are particularly worried that the budget prepared by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, will lead to severe cuts in those programs through block grants or other methods of shifting responsibility to states, while also giving them more flexibility.

"Block granting ... is just not what's in the best interests of the recipients of those programs," said Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat who will lead the state budget committee next year. "We're dealing with hungry people, which we cannot ignore."

Graves noted that before the election, he hoped the Legislature would take a serious look at boosting subsidized child care and Supplemental Security Income payments for seniors and people with disabilities. That seems less likely now.

Congressional Republicans also are eager to repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which provides $20 billion for the Medi-Cal program and private insurance subsidies. Preserving that coverage, much less expanding it to cover more people, would be extremely expensive.

The California Endowment has provided millions of dollars for an advocacy campaign called Health4All to expand Medi-Cal coverage for immigrants who can't prove they're legally in the United States. In December, it announced a new initiative: Fight4All. The $25 million effort reflects a shift in focus from creating new rights to defending existing ones.

"A whole host of areas where significant progress has been made in California in the last five or six years or so, we feel that work is now in jeopardy," said Dr. Tony Iton, the endowment's senior vice president.

Still, conservatives in the state aren't optimistic that Trump's presidency will give them a reprieve from lawmakers' persistent push to the left.

California's Legislature is "sort of like its own nation-state," said Tom Scott, California director of the National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business advocacy organization that often is at odds with legislative priorities including labor and environmental mandates.

"Quite frankly, whatever the Trump administration does, it will not stop Gov. Brown and the state Legislature from moving forward on their political agenda," Scott said. "So I'm on one level expecting sort of business — or un-business — as usual, and I don't see that changing."