By Alan Riquelmy
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California lawmakers will return to Sacramento in a few days for the 2024 legislative session, tackling an estimated $68 billion deficit — along with high-profile issues like homelessness and the fentanyl crisis — in what’s expected to be a contentious national election year.
Both the Assembly and Senate reconvene Jan. 3. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s draft budget comes out the following week, with deadlines for lingering bills from last session not far behind.
After years of being integral to budget discussions, Senate President Pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins will step away from them. The San Diego Democrat, the Senate’s leader since 2018, is terming out at the end of 2024. She’ll hand the gavel to fellow Democratic Senator Mike McGuire in February.
Atkins said it’s better to step aside before budget discussions begin in earnest. She told Courthouse News this month that she wants a smooth transition.
“It doesn’t make sense to have a long engagement in a situation like this,” Atkins said. “I want him to be successful.”
While taking a step back from leadership, Atkins still has much to consider.
She’s currently mulling a possible run for governor. “It’s the right time to think about what’s next,” Atkins said. “I love public service. I’ve loved every bit of it.”
She is also juggling legislation she wants to sponsor. As president pro tempore, she’s helped colleagues with their legislation. This year, she sponsored five bills of her own. Now, she’s looking forward to being a rank-and-file member of the Senate and having a robust package of her own bills.
“There is a certain amount of freedom that comes from being a member,” Atkins said, as opposed to part of leadership.
Her priorities will show in next year’s legislation: health care, the military, climate change, affordable housing and LGBTQ+ issues.
For Senator Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, public transportation funding is at the top of his priority list.
“We’ll be working very hard to shore up public transportation in the Bay Area,” he said.
Wiener regularly posts on X, formerly Twitter, about transportation, at times including pictures of himself riding the train.
The Bay Area senator also will sponsor a bill about artificial intelligence. He’s already filed an intent bill, and will update it in the new year.
The intent bill would create standards and requirements for safely developing, deploying and scaling new AI models in California. AI developers would have to comply with yet-to-be-created disclosure requirements.
An auto break-in bill is also on his list. For now, prosecutors must prove a car was locked to convict someone of auto burglary. Wiener hopes to remove that hurdle.
The Bay Area Democrat is also looking toward a reworked version of Senate Bill 58, which sought to legalize psilocybin — an ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms.
A bill of Wiener’s that would have legalized the possession and transport of substances like psilocybin and mescaline made it to Newsom’s desk this year. However, the governor vetoed it, pointing to a lack of a regulatory framework.
The new bill — with Assemblymember Marie Waldron, a Valley Center Republican, as a cosponsor — will address Newsom’s concerns without decriminalizing personal use.
Senator Brian Dahle, a Bieber Republican, said he received some blowback for opposing Wiener’s bill this year, as psilocybin is used in some therapeutic treatments.
“I might actually support it,” Dahle said of the new bill. However, Dahle emphasized that he wouldn’t support any bill that decriminalized personal use.
“We have a drug problem in California and it leads to homelessness,” he said.
Fentanyl is another key issue for Dahle. A father of young adults, he said fentanyl’s effects frighten him.
A bright spot for Dahle in the fight against the opioid was the state’s first conviction of someone who sold fentanyl that led to a person’s death. Nathaniel Cabacungan, 22, pleaded guilty in Placer County to murder and selling a controlled substance to a minor. He was sentenced in October to 15 years to life in prison.
As he terms out in 2024, Dahle said he’s not planning on changing priorities in his last year in the Legislature. He’ll continue to work toward driving down the cost of living.
Dahle pointed to the November vote of the California Public Utilities Commission, which will increase electric and natural gas rates next year. As costs continue to climb, he wants to lower not only electric and gas prices, but also housing and insurance costs.
A 2023 study showed that housing costs are the main reason people lose their homes, and that increasing services could keep many people from losing housing.
Assemblymember Chris Ward, a San Diego Democrat, said homelessness will be a key topic for the Assembly’s Housing and Community Development Committee, which he now chairs.
“It’s one of the biggest crises we have across the state,” he said.
Ward intends to develop a strategic plan to tackle the issue. Affordable housing is part of the solution, as are accessible programs for the unhoused.
The estimated $68 billion deficit will bring complications. However, Ward noted that the previous budget also created difficulties and the state didn’t defund housing or homelessness programs.
“That’s going to be even harder to do this year,” Ward said. “I’m anxious to see what the governor’s draft is going to look like in January.”
Assemblymember James Gallagher, the Republican minority leader, said his party has been warning others of the impending deficit. Record revenues, combined with Covid-19 relief funds and a strong stock market, made for a healthy budget. Now the tide has turned.
Asked for possible solutions to cutting the deficit, Gallagher pointed to the state’s high-speed rail project. Approved in 2008 by voters, its price tag has ballooned from an initial estimate of $33 billion and a completion date of 2018 to $128 billion, with no end date in sight.
Gallagher said the project is riddled with cost overruns with very little track laid. The state should refocus its efforts on core services, like roads, water, public safety and wildfire prevention, he said.
The last priority is key for Gallagher, as his district includes the town of Paradise, destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire. He’s concerned about Newsom removing funding.
“We can’t just cut that off,” he said.
Wildfires will be just one of many issues drawing lawmakers’ attention this session. Both legislative houses must wrestle with the massive deficit while ensuring the state’s obligations are met. Additionally, legislators will have their own bills — ranging from artificial intelligence to affordable housing — added to the mix, with each falling under a series of strict deadlines.
The session starts next week.