California Gov. Gavin Newsom, fresh off last month’s recall victory, signed a bundle of bills over the weekend that delivered a fresh layer of woke regulations to his allies on the Democratic left.
Included were landmark measures to require ethnic studies for high school graduation; order large retailers to offer gender-neutral children’s products such as toys and toothbrushes; ban restaurants from providing unsolicited single-use condiment packets and utensils; and phase out gas-powered lawnmowers and leaf-blowers.
Those were only a few of the 100-plus bills the Democrat signed at the end of the 2021 state legislative session, but headline-grabbing measures fueled the perception that the governor is thumbing his nose at recall supporters by expanding the state’s regulatory authority.
“As many of us predicted, Newsom‘s defeat of the recall has only emboldened him to impose more freedom-killing measures,” said Los Angeles radio talk-show host Larry Elder, the leading Republican vote-getter in the Sept. 14 recall.
Randy Economy, former senior adviser and spokesperson for the recall campaign, said the “only thing that has changed since the recall election is that Gavin Newsom has doubled down on lunacy.”
Mr. Newsom, who beat back the recall by a vote of 62% to 38%, touted the recently signed legislation as part of the state’s comeback from COVID-19, including an ambitious $123.9 billion K-12 education and broadband access package.
“What we’re doing here in California is unprecedented in both nature and scale,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement. “We will come back from this pandemic stronger than ever before.”
California Republicans countered that the state’s recovery would not be helped by imposing fussy rules and “unnecessary mandates” on businesses, starting with the state’s struggling restaurant industry.
They pointed to AB 1276, which prohibits restaurants under penalty of fines from providing single-use plastic packets of ketchup, mustard and other condiments, as well as single-use utensils such as forks, chopsticks and coffee-stirrers, unless requested by customers.
Senate Minority Leader Scott Wilk argued in a Sept. 15 letter to the governor that there are “far more pressing issues facing California at this time than limiting soy sauce or hot sauce packets.”
“Forced closures, outside seating and minimal indoor capacity have left many restaurants teetering on the edge,” Mr. Wilk said. “Adding mandates and imposing fines at this time, as this bill proposes, would make it that much harder for these businesses to recover.”
Mr. Newsom also signed AB 1084, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Evan Low, on Saturday. The bill requires retailers with at least 500 employees to maintain an undivided sales area where toys and children’s hygiene items are displayed together “regardless of whether a particular item has traditionally been marketed for either girls or for boys.”
“He signed a bill that mandates ‘gender neutral’ toy sections,” Mr. Elder said in an email. “Now thieves can steal up to $950 worth of toys without the inconvenience of having to do so in both the girls’ and the boys’ section. Welcome to California.”
Californians raised the bar on felony charges for theft from $400 to $950 by passing Proposition 47 in 2014, before Mr. Newsom was governor. But the Democrat will own AB 101, which requires high schools to offer ethnic studies by the 2025-26 academic year and require a one-semester course for graduation by 2029-30.
His signature came after years of debate on the issue — former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed an earlier version of the bill in 2018 — spurred by concerns by Jewish groups and others that the bill would allow educators to push an anti-Israel, antisemitic curriculum.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, executive director of the antisemitism watchdog AMCHA Initiative, said the bill’s signing represented a “dark day for Jewish students in California and dozens of other states that historically follow California’s lead.”
“To say we are deeply concerned is an understatement,” she said in a Friday statement. “While certainly not all in the ethnic studies field fall into this category, there is a vocal and active faction of extremists who have long been seeking to inject their antisemitic and anti-Zionist agenda into our nation’s classrooms, and today that faction succeeded.”
Supporters argue the new law includes “guardrails” to prevent bias and ensure the curriculum is not used to target a particular group, and that local districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, are already passing their own mandates.
“A veto would have left a dangerous gap in the law, it would not stop proponents of the original ethnic studies curriculum from continuing their local advocacy, and it would not have prevented local school districts from passing their own local mandates, just like LAUSD did last year,” said Dillon Hosier, chief advocacy officer for the Israeli-American Civic Action Network, in the Times of Israel.
Democratic Assembly member Jose Medina, who sponsored the bill, said the “inclusion of ethnic studies in the high school curriculum is long overdue,” while the Los Angeles Times editorial board had urged the governor to veto the measure.
“And despite the supposed guardrails in AB 101, there is too much leeway for unapproved curriculum to be taught,” the Sept. 20 editorial stated. “It allows school districts to adopt or adapt from the approved curriculum, but they also are free to create their own. Who is going to determine when the lessons aren’t appropriate and when they are biased?”
Blowing off leaf-blowers
California landscapers took a hit in the name of climate change with Mr. Newsom’s signature on AB 1346, a bill to phase out gas-powered lawnmowers, leaf blowers and other small-motor equipment, requiring them to run on electricity or batteries as early as 2024.
Democratic Assembly member Marc Berman, the bill’s sponsor, said the machines “emit staggering levels of air pollution,” in addition to being “noisy” and “terribly disruptive to communities across California.”
“To ensure an equitable transition to safer, cleaner equipment, we secured $30 million in the state budget to help small businesses purchase zero-emission replacements,” Mr. Berman said in a press release.
The law requires the California Air Resources Board to require such small off-road engines to produce zero emissions by 2024 or whenever feasible.
Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle, who had urged the governor to veto the bill, argued that it would create economic hardship for small businesses.
“As soon as 2024, small landscaping businesses will be forced to pay for more expensive equipment that they will need to find a way to charge and maintain,” Mr. Dahle said in a letter. “Many of these small businesses opposed to AB 1346 are also minority-owned and operated. Further, this bill does not address the amount of toxic batteries that will be required for all of these necessary tools that are used in every community throughout California.”
From a Republican perspective, it could have been worse. Among the measures that reached Mr. Newsom’s desk was a bill to decriminalize jaywalking and ignoring pedestrian traffic signals, which the GOP’s Mr. Wilk opposed.
The governor vetoed the measure, referring in his signing statement to the state’s high pedestrian-fatality rate.
Signing a slew of progressive measures may seem risky ahead of the 2022 election, but analysts say Mr. Newsom‘s reelection confidence was undoubtedly buoyed by the magnitude of his recall win.
“Victory in the recall liberated him to be the very liberal governor he always wanted to be,” said Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney.