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With a Spate of New Laws, California May Be the Most Progressive State in the Nation

What's right in California is how well it's doing in moving left. (Photo: gguy / Shutterstock)

California lawmakers have been extremely busy actually getting work done—unlike their federal counterparts in Washington, D.C. The most populous state in the nation is now arguably also the most progressive. Here are 10 critical issues covered by recently passed laws, from reproductive rights and equal pay to voting rights and health care for undocumented children:

1. Abortion: While the election-year rhetoric against women’s right to abortion has reached fever pitch, California has bucked the trend by cracking down on fake clinics. Anti-abortion groups nationwide have set up so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” that prey on women considering an abortion, often giving them misleading or false information in order to dissuade them. Such centers can be dangerous, leading pregnant women to believe that they are getting advice from medical professionals. Only a few cities and counties nationwide have banned them. California has become the first state in the nation to regulate them, requiring them to disclose critical information to potential patients. Already the state is facing lawsuits by two of the 170 such centers within its borders.

2. Right to Die: Garnering perhaps the most press coverage is the newly signed “right to die” bill, which gives terminally ill Californians the right to take their own lives at a time of their choosing. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill, writing a personal note in which he revealed, “In the end I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death.” Brown added, “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.” The bill was prompted by the activism of a young California woman named Brittany Maynard who had terminal cancer and moved to Oregon, where right-to-die is the law. There, she died a year ago by her own choice. California became the fourth state in the nation to adopt such a law, and about 25 other states have introduced similar legislation.

3. Equal Pay: On Oct. 6, Brown signed what the Los Angeles Times called “one of the toughest pay equity laws in the nation.” Starting in January, as per the California Fair Pay Act, women who learn that their male counterparts are earning unjustifiably more than they are for work of similar value can sue their bosses. They are even protected from retaliation for inquiring about comparable worker wages. This law goes much further than its federal counterpart.

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4. Environment: California legislators also passed several significant environmental regulations that Brown signed. Among them is the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015, which establishes far more ambitious numbers for the state’s renewable energy targets. California has now pledged to produce half its electricity through renewable energy sources within the next 15 years. This is one of the strongest clean energy laws in the nation. Brown also signed into law a bill that allows the two largest pension funds of state employees to divest from coal companies.

5. Farming: California just passed what is being called the “strictest animal antibiotic law in the nation.” Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration adopted guidelines for veterinarians on antibiotic prescriptions for animal agriculture. An FDA spokesperson proudly stated, “The goal is to affect behaviors at the farm level.” But California went much further than the federal government, and rather than affecting behaviors, it took the simpler and more direct route of banning the routine use of antibiotics to promote growth in animals. The overuse of antibiotics in cattle farming has led to the rise of superbugs and poses a serious public health risk.

6. Immigration: Thanks to the state Legislature, undocumented children in California will now be eligible for subsidized Medi-Cal health insurance. Contrary to federal regulations that prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to support low-income immigrants, California will set aside $40 million to ensure that undocumented children are covered. The bill, SB-4, was originally written to include adults and children but was narrowed because it would have been too expensive.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, who sponsored the bill, told the Los Angeles Times, “California stands out. ... [This bill] says we are not going to buy in to that rhetoric that’s divisive.” Given the racist anti-immigrant discourse between conservatives at the national level, this law, which will impact 170,000 children, is refreshingly progressive. It builds on last year’s law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, making this one of the most immigrant-friendly states in the nation.

7. Voting Rights: Following in Oregon’s footsteps, California passed a so-called motor voter law. The bill simply stipulates that Californians who register cars or take driving tests at their local DMV offices will automatically be registered to vote unless they opt out. The motor voter law is aimed particularly at young people.

In an op-ed in The Huffington Post, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and California Secretary of State Alex Padilla lamented the fact that “just 17% of eligible Latinos and 18% of eligible Asian Americans voted in the 2014 general election.” They added, “Even worse, Latinos made up only 15% of California’s 2014 vote despite being 39% of our population.” As a result of this law, the state’s voter rolls are likely to expand, making election night turnout the remaining challenge. In contrast with Alabama’s drive to close DMVs in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, California is moving in the other direction, increasing democratic participation instead of curbing it.

8. Gun Control: In the wake of the latest mass shooting in Oregon, support for gun control remains strong, but most Americans are pessimistic about the passage of regulations. California already has some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation. On Oct. 10, Gov. Brown added one more law to the books by signing a bill that would prohibit the concealed carrying of weapons on or near college campuses. Only those who have concealed-carry permits are exempt. In 2014, a mass shooting in the college town of Isla Vista, Calif., left seven people dead, driving home the necessity of curbing guns.

9. Ban on “Redskins”: On Oct. 11, California became the first and only state in the nation to ban the use of the derogatory name “redskins” by sports teams. The word is widely considered offensive to Native Americans, even by its dictionary definition. The issue is of national significance, with the Washington, D.C., football team defiantly retaining the name despite strong opposition from Indian tribes. There are currently only four teams in California that would be impacted by the new state law, and they have until 2017 to replace their names.

10. Medical Marijuana: While the state is behind several others on legalizing marijuana, California just passed a significant new set of bills regulating medical marijuana. Brown signed the bills into law, creating a comprehensive set of rules governing the cultivation and sale of medical marijuana, including curbs on contaminants and pesticides. Since voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, the medical marijuana industry has grown rapidly but remained in an unregulated form that has also made it susceptible to federal drug law enforcement. With these new regulations, the way could be paved for full marijuana legalization in California, with voters being likely to see a ballot initiative to that effect next year.

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Uprising." She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA. She is the author, with James Ingalls, of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence" (2006).

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