People are familiar with what their local government does and what happens at the federal level. However, many people don't have a clear take on what happens at the state level in Sacramento. The answer is a lot, and a lot that matters to our daily lives. The State Legislature - and who represents our community there - is incredibly important, and you should care about it.
What is the State Senate?
The State Legislature is divided into two houses, similar to Congress: the Senate and the Assembly. The Senate, which is the upper chamber, has 40 members. Each Senator represents nearly a million people, in our case all of San Francisco and northern San Mateo County. So, 40 Senators play a significant role in crafting policy for the eighth largest economy in the world and adopting the California budget, whose general fund alone exceeds $100 billion.
Why should I care?
The State Legislature, and thus the State Senate, plays a crucial role in adopting policy impacting many different areas that impact our daily lives, for example:
The state, through its budget process, provides most of the funding for public schools in California. Public education receives a baseline amount, and the Legislature and Governor then have the option of going above that amount. The Legislature also adopts many different public education standards around schools, teaching, and the like. These rules help determine how effective our public education system will be.
The state - and the Legislature - plays a huge role in setting transportation policy and providing transportation funding. Without state support, major, transformational projects will struggle mightily to move forward. In coming years, we need high speed rail to the Transbay Transit Center, a second transbay tube, and major increases in transit investment. The state has significant capacity to generate funds for transit, and having strong leadership in the Legislature matters a lot in moving these needs forward.
The state has almost total power over the water system and, with one legislative or administrative act, can change everything. Over the coming decade, given the drought, water is going to be a major topic of discussion and action in the Legislature is likely to (and should) completely restructure how we use this scarce resource.
Social Safety Net Services
The state plays a central role in most safety net services, dwarfing what local government - even as progressive a place as San Francisco - can do. The state funds and administers healthcare access programs for low income people (Medi-Cal), nutrition support for low income people (food stamps), the foster care system, many senior services, HIV services, child care subsidies, and many other services that support low income people and working families.
Healthcare Access and Public Health
The Legislature plays a very significant role in ensuring access to healthcare and smart public health policy. For example, when some insurance companies increased drug co-pays to astronomical levels, it was the Legislature that had the power to step in and place a cap on co-pay amounts. And, when it became clear that too many schoolchildren were not being vaccinated, placing other children at risk, the Legislature passed a law to require vaccination.
Climate Change and Clean Energy
While all levels of government have the responsibility and some power to address climate change, the Legislature has broad powers - if it chooses to exercise them - to address this threat to our world. The Legislature can take, and has taken, steps to address this problem, for example, setting fuel efficiency standards, limiting carbon emissions, and adopting a carbon cap-and-trade system. More recently, the Legislature failed to pass groundbreaking legislation to dramatically roll back carbon emissions and require a gradual 50% reduction in petroleum use. The Legislature also has broad power around clean energy standards and requirements.
Nightlife and Entertainment
While nightlife and entertainment should be an issue of local concern, sadly they aren't, and the state heavily regulates and restricts it, particularly where alcohol is concerned. State law, for example, places a blanket end time of 2 a.m. for sale of alcohol at bars and clubs, even if a local jurisdiction wants to allow some venues to serve until a later hour. The state micro-manages how alcoholic drinks are made and issues or denies liquor licenses, at times ignoring local governments' wishes about these licenses. These rules at times undermine nightlife in San Francisco, which is so central to our city's culture and economy.
Housing and Smart Growth
The state has a significant role to play in ensuring smart growth and adequate housing production for a growing population. The Legislature has passed various laws to encourage smart growth and acceptable housing production levels, but these laws aren't strong enough. Significant room remains for the Legislature to give strong incentives to local jurisdictions to work together with their regional partners to ensure that all cities and towns are participating in addressing the housing crisis by creating housing and making that housing transit-oriented.
The state oversees the University of California system and the California State University system, as well as funding for the state's Community College system. The state - and particularly the Legislature - has a huge role to play in returning public college education in California to its affordable roots and keeping it as an economic, innovation, and equality engine for our state.
Civil Rights and Immigrant Rights
The overwhelming majority of civil rights laws are at the state level, and in a number of areas, the Legislature, not local elected bodies, has the sole authority to act. The Legislature, for decades, has led the way in various aspects of civil rights. The Legislature, for example, long ago led the country in abolishing a ban on inter-racial marriage and repealing the state's anti-sodomy law. More recently, under the leadership of Senator Mark Leno, the Legislature became the first state legislative body to pass a marriage equality bill. The Legislature has also been a trend-setter in ensuring inclusion of our immigrant communities, including providing undocumented immigrants with access to healthcare and drivers licenses.
The Legislature has broad authority, which local governments don't have, to pass consumer protection measures, whether mandatory labeling bills for health purposes, bans on dangerous products, or regulation of food safety.