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    California’s secretive approach to lawmaking could use some sunshine
    • March 13, 2024

    It’s National Sunshine Week, launched in 2005 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to highlight the importance of public access to government information.

    In California, we’re marking it by trying to figure out how a new law raising the wages of fast food workers ended up with a controversial and disputed exemption for Panera Bread restaurants, and why everyone in on the negotiations had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

    So the outlook for sunshine in California is, at best, partly cloudy.

    The story of this new fast food workers law begins in September 2022, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 257, the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act. The law established a 10-member council in the government to establish wages, hours and working conditions in one particular sector of the economy. It applied to fast food chains.

    Before the ink on the governor’s signature was dry, the restaurant industry launched a signature-gathering effort to qualify a referendum for the ballot. That froze the implementation of the law until the voters had the opportunity to decide its fate in the November 2024 election.

    This caused great anger among the union special interests that lobbied for the bill, and eventually the result was another bill that aimed to reform the referendum process. Signed into law by Newsom on September 8, 2023, Assembly Bill 421 changed the law to allow the proponents of a referendum to withdraw it from the ballot up to 131 days before the election at which it would go before voters.

    This is what enabled the backroom negotiations for a new law. The result was AB 1228, signed by the governor on September 28, 2023.

    AB 1228 looks a lot like AB 257, but it removed a provision that made fast food corporate owners financially liable, along with franchisees, for workplace violations. The franchisees were left with a law that requires a minimum wage increase to $20 an hour effective April 1, and also sets up a government council that functions like a permanent union contract bargaining session, except without the bargaining.

    Panera Bread was exempted, Bloomberg News reported, after Gov. Newsom pushed for a strangely specific exemption for fast food restaurants that produce and sell bread as a stand-alone menu item as long as they were doing it before September 15, 2023. Newsom denies pushing for it, and denies, without evidence, that Panera Bread is exempt.

    KCRA’s Ashley Zavala reported that the final negotiations over AB 1228 were conducted by the Service Employees International Union, which demanded that the other parties at the table sign non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs. The other parties were fast food corporations and industry trade groups. Franchisees were not at the table. They were, as the old saying goes, on the menu.

    From the editorial board: Non-disclosure agreements in Sacramento turn lawmaking into plunder

    The referendum “reform” that spawned these secret negotiations was modeled on a 2014 law that did something similar for initiatives. Senate Bill 1253 allowed initiative proponents to remove their measure from the ballot after it had qualified, if they were able to work out an acceptable deal with the legislature for something else.

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    That’s how Proposition 19 got on the November ballot in 2020. The California Association of Realtors originally wanted a measure that would provide portability of property tax bills for longtime owners over age 55 who wished to move to a new home and keep their low property taxes. After going through the Sacramento sausage factory, the measure that ended up on the ballot had the blessing of the California Professional Firefighters and  a massive tax increase on property passed from parents to children.

    Other initiatives that qualified for the ballot and then disappeared after private negotiations include 2022 measures that addressed plastic waste and medical malpractice lawsuit caps. In both cases, the legislature passed a compromise bill.

    This process has allowed the direct democracy powers in the state constitution, which date to 1911, to become just one more grind in the sausage factory. Voters can sign petitions all day long, but in many cases all they’re doing is empowering a special interest group to wield leverage with state lawmakers, or other special interest groups, in secret negotiations.

    Repeal AB 421 and SB 1253. Let the sun shine.

    Write [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley

    ​ Orange County Register