SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom again seized the national spotlight this year as he signed some of the most ambitious laws in the country to raise worker wages and to force companies to disclose a wide range of climate emissions, efforts that further cement the state’s — and the governor’s — status as a leader on a host of liberal causes.
But the Democrat disappointed some progressive advocates as he vetoed high-profile bills to give unemployment benefits to striking workers, require courts to weigh a parent’s support of their child’s gender identity in custody proceedings and decriminalize some psychedelic drugs. He also supported a controversial bill to force more people into mental health or addiction treatment, a proposal aimed at addressing the state’s persistent homelessness crisis.
His actions on more than 1,000 pieces of legislation — nearly 15% of which he vetoed — showcase how Newsom plans to govern in his second and final term as leader of the nation’s most populous state. Newsom’s moves are increasingly seen through the lens of a possible presidential bid beyond 2024, though he insists he does not plan to run.
Some observers say his moves are largely consistent with both the views of California voters and the political tone that Newsom struck in his first term.
While Newsom delighted labor advocates with many of his signatures, he also angered them with some vetoes. He even won praise from Republicans for signing a bill to increase penalties for child sex trafficking after criticizing some Democratic lawmakers for initially opposing the bill.
Political consultant Elizabeth Ashford, who advises Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas and has worked for former governors Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, is skeptical of the idea that Newsom’s actions are about appealing to a national audience. If he’s taking more moderate stances on some issues, including crime and homelessness, it’s likely in response to what California voters want, she said.
Indeed, California’s unabated homelessness crisis and the proliferation of fentanyl on the streets have been among the most visible and stubborn issues during Newsom’s tenure.
“I think that it’s very much how you see both Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger move into a more middle posture,” Ashford said. “It’s because that’s what Californians want their governor to be.”
Newsom’s actions reflect that he is “a consistently left-of-center Democratic governor,” said Wesley Hussey, a political science professor at California State University, Sacramento. “I think maybe he draws the line where it’s going to cost the state a lot more money.”
Newsom justified many of his vetoes — such as on a bill to make free condoms available to public high school students — by saying there was not enough money in the state budget to cover the cost. It came after he worked with lawmakers this year to try to close a projected $31.5 billion budget deficit.
Californians typically rank the economy and jobs as the most important issues in the state, said Mark Baldassare, the statewide survey director at the Public Policy Institute of California, and Newsom signed key legislation aimed at boosting workers. Health care workers will gradually receive a minimum hourly wage of $25, fast-food workers will be paid at least $20 an hour, workers will get more paid sick leave and lower-level legislative staffers will be able to unionize.
But in a year when hotel workers, Hollywood actors and writers, and health care workers went on strike, Newsom also vetoed a bill that would have given unemployment benefits to striking workers.
Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, who heads the California Labor Federation, said “it’s almost cruel” that workers who go on strike aren’t guaranteed insurance benefits.
“We have workers who are putting everything on the line right now by going on strike,” she said. “They’re doing this because, quite honestly, this economy has failed them.”
Newsom also vetoed a bill that would have protected domestic workers who get injured or sick on the job and a proposal to save driver jobs while automated semi-trucks are tested for their safety on public roads.
In recent years, Californians have had to cope with wildfires, intense heat waves, and violent winds and rain. So it’s not surprising that many of them also say the environment is one of the state’s most pressing issues, Baldassare said.
Newsom started the year off by pushing a proposal to punish oil companies for profiting from high gas prices. The idea evolved from a tax on oil company profits to a law that makes regulators decide whether to penalize oil companies for price gouging. So far no penalties have been placed on oil companies, and Republicans still fault Newsom for failing to tackle the state’s sky-high gas prices.
He also signed two climate proposals that are the most aggressive mandates of their kind in the country: One to require companies making more than $1 billion annually to disclose their direct and indirect emissions, and another to require companies making more than $500 million annually to disclose how climate change poses a risk to them financially.
“He cares about climate, he cares about being a national leader on climate, and this is how he does it,” said Melissa Romero, deputy legislative director at advocacy group California Environmental Voters.
Homelessness also remains top of mind for voters in the state with the highest unhoused population in the country. Newsom sent two measures to voters aimed at transforming the state’s mental health system and addressing the homelessness crisis. He also signed a law to force more people into treatment if they have untreated mental illness or addiction issues and are unable to provide themselves with basic needs like food and shelter. The policies are controversial and reflect Newsom’s desire to tackle an issue that’s often the subject of national criticism.
Assemblymember Chris Ward, a Democrat and vice chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, said it was a “very successful year” for laws strengthening protections for LGBTQ+ people in the state. Newsom signed legislation to make sure LGBTQ+ foster youth are placed with families able to support their well-being, train school staff to better support LGBTQ+ students and seal legal gender-change petition documents for minors.
Still, Newsom surprised some when he vetoed a bill that would have required courts to weigh a parent’s affirmation of their child’s gender identity in custody and visitation cases. He said he vetoed it in part because he was concerned about lawmakers using their power to dictate “in prescriptive terms” how judges make decisions and warned such an approach could be alternatively used to “to diminish the civil rights of vulnerable communities.” Ward disagreed with that reasoning, saying judges regularly rely on language from laws passed by the Legislature to help inform their decisions.
Something else out-of-the-ordinary happened in California politics this year: Newsom took the unusual step of publicly opposing a move by lawmakers in his party to block a bill authored by a Republican. The dispute revolved around legislation to increase penalties for child traffickers.
State Sen. Shannon Grove, who introduced the bill, does not remember something like that happening since she first arrived at the Legislature in 2010. Newsom spoke with her after the bill was initially blocked, she said.
“He just said that ‘I’m disappointed in what happened in public safety,’” Grove said. “And I said, ‘Me too.’”
Sophie Austin is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter: @sophieadanna
Sophie Austin, The Associated Press