Learning the Ropes: California Legislature 101
As the Bedrosian Center gets ready to welcome California State Assembly Speaker John Pérez for the next edition of our Leading From the West series, our focus turns to the political process at the state level. As the leader of the State Assembly, Pérez plays a crucial role in helping usher ideas into law.
California’s model of governance bears more than a casual resemblance to the federal government: The California state government is organized with three branches of government, executive, legislative, and judicial. In the legislative branch of the state government, representation is, like the national model, bicameral. The California State Legislature is comprised of both the California Senate, which is comprised of 40 senators who are elected every four years, and the California Assembly, which features 80 politicians elected on two-year terms. (Both the Senate and the Assembly are currently under Democratic control.) The California State Legislature is charged with creating and passing state laws, passing a state budget, and overseeing state agencies.
In order to accomplish these tasks, each chamber is overseen by a political leader, usually elected by the dominant political party at the start of each session. Since 2010, Pérez has been the Speaker of the Assembly, a job that includes much more than just presiding over the floor of the assembly when the group is in session. Pérez also manages the Assembly’s operations, including determining the daily schedule for committees and allocating funds, staffing, and resources for committees. One of Pérez’s most influential responsibilities is the power to appoint members to the Assembly’s committee and subcommittees, which are mostly organized around policy areas such as health or education.
When a piece of legislation is first proposed, it is sent to a committee for consideration, either in the Assembly or the Senate, depending on the affiliation of the member who authors it. Once a piece of legislation has been heard in committee, a process that may include testimony from interested parties, it may be sent to an Appropriations Committee in the Senate or Assembly (depending on where it originated) to assess the bill’s fiscal impact on the state.
Following successfully passage in the Appropriations Committee, a bill will be reviewed and debated by either the Senate or Assembly, with suggestions for amendments if necessary. If the proposed piece of legislation is not defeated, it will be sent to the other chamber of the California Legislature for a similar round of committee approvals and review.
If the bill musters enough support to pass both the Senate and the Assembly, it will be sent to the governor for ratification. Along with the lieutenant governor, controller, treasurer, and attorney general, the governor represents the executive branch of state government. The governor may choose to either sign the bill into law or veto it. The California State Legislature has an opportunity to override a governor’s veto. Two-thirds approval of both the Assembly and the Senate in separate votes are required to bypass a veto.
With enormous power to staff Assembly committees, Pérez wields enormous influence on the agenda of the California Legislature, helping shape the direction of the state on key issues. However, unlike many states, California has a unique twist to its legislative process. Since 1911, California has also featured initiatives and popular referendums as a way for residents to have another way to make law. The Populist-era process of popular appeal, including ballot measures, has been behind some of California’s landmark decisions in recent memory, from Proposition 13 to the recall of Governor Gray Davis. The initiative process is part of California’s unique approach toward law-making, an approach that allows residents two ways to effect legislative change.