California lawmakers are barreling toward an end-of-month deadline to pass or kill bills amid the biggest public health crisis the state has faced in a century.
Yet even in a year consumed by sickness, they’re considering significant — sometimes controversial — health policy measures that aren’t directly related to COVID-19.
Much of this legislation predates the pandemic, having lacked the support to win approval in previous years. Now, the bills are making significant progress because they underwent rigorous vetting in the past. That puts them steps ahead in a year with little time for deliberation or debate.
They include bills to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, such as menthol cigarettes and vaping liquids; allow California to develop its own brand of generic drugs; enhance the state attorney general’s power to reject hospital mergers; and allow nurse practitioners to practice independently.
“Some of these bills, which have pretty far-reaching effects, may just sweep through because [lawmakers are] trying to get out of here by the end of August,” said Garry South, a Democratic political strategist.
The California legislature has had a bizarre year. Lawmakers left town abruptly in March to comply with lockdown orders and then again in July when some Assembly members tested positive for COVID-19, cutting the legislative session short.
The reduced time means most policy committees scheduled fewer hearings in the last weeks of the session to debate bills. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, most witnesses are giving testimony over the phone and in video conferences, lawmakers are unable to have informal meetings in the hallways, and advocates have fewer opportunities to lobby officials.
Lawmakers face an Aug. 31 deadline to send bills to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has until the end of September to sign or veto them.
Given the shortened time frame for voting and deliberation, legislative leaders repeatedly asked committee chairs and members of their houses to reduce their legislative load, focusing on the most pressing challenges, like COVID-19 and wildfires. Despite those directives, most officials acknowledge a need to address more than those issues this year.
“We have the capacity to do many different things, and there are many things we must tend to in this state,” Newsom said at a press conference in late July. “I look forward to signing many bills that the legislature sends down.”
Passage is not guaranteed in the last three chaotic weeks of the legislative session, but the following major health care bills have made it through one house of the legislature and are working their way through committees in the second chamber.
- SB-977 would give the attorney general new authority to regulate and potentially deny mergers between large for-profit hospitals, private equity firms and physicians’ groups. Attorney General Xavier Becerra has been working on this legislation for years in the face of strong…