SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California lawmakers will grapple with a growing sexual misconduct scandal when they return to Sacramento on Wednesday for the 2018 legislative year that will bring debates about boosting protections for victims and whistleblowers and improving the Legislature’s policing of itself.
On the very first day back, the Senate must confront how to handle one of its members, Sen. Tony Mendoza, a Democrat who has refused calls to step aside amid an investigation into his alleged inappropriate behaviour toward young women who worked for him.
“This is certainly not something we thought we’d be working on,” Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino said. “We’re finally going to be able to get it right and make sure any injustices in the past we can correct and that moving forward, everyone who works in the Capitol can feel like they can come forward.”
That’s not all that’s on lawmakers’ plates. Within a week of their return, Gov. Jerry Brown will submit his final budget proposal, kicking off six months of negotiating on how California should raise and spend money. Proposals that stalled last year on bail reform, single-payer health care and expanding renewable energy also will be back for debate.
Still, sexual misconduct will be a dominant theme. A letter circulated in mid-October by lobbyists, lawmakers, legislative staffers and other political consultants cited a pervasive culture of harassment in California’s Capitol. Women eventually came forward with specific allegations that prompted Democratic Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, both of Los Angeles, to resign.
Mendoza, meanwhile, denies allegations against him and says an investigation will clear his name. But Republican Sen. Andy Vidak said he’ll move to expel Mendoza when the Senate reconvenes, setting up a potentially fraught showdown on the Senate floor.
Legislatively, Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez will bring forward for the fifth time a bill that would give whistleblower protections to legislative employees who report ethical violations, including sexual misconduct. The Senate has killed her bill four times.
Dozens of women have said they do not report misbehaviour by lawmakers or legislative staff because they are afraid of losing their jobs or facing other professional repercussions. Several former Mendoza staffers have accused the Senate of firing them because they reported his overtures to a young woman who worked for him, something the Senate and Mendoza deny.
Melendez, of Lake Elsinore, has been tweeting the names of every lawmaker who has agreed to co-sponsor the measure as a means of ramping up pressure on the Senate. The bill has historically passed the Assembly with bipartisan support.
Leyva, meanwhile, will introduce a bill that would ban nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment settlements, both in the public and private sectors, which can stop the parties from speaking publicly about what led to the settlement.
“Eliminating these secret settlements, the no-disclosure agreements, then the accused, the person who is doing the harassing, they have nowhere to hide,” Leyva said. “They have to stop their behaviour.”
Whether or not taxpayer dollars should be used to pay for such settlements is another open question.
Sen. Pat Bates of Laguna Niguel, the chamber’s Republican leader, said the chamber should consider ending that practice. Constituents have asked her why they should be responsible for paying for lawmakers’ bad behaviour, she said.
Two other planned Assembly bills would extend the period in which people can report sexual harassment claims at the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing and impose stricter rules for employers — including the Legislature — to track sexual harassment complaints. Democratic Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes of San Bernardino is backing both pieces of legislation.
Reyes sits on the Assembly subcommittee tasked with rewriting the Legislature’s sexual harassment policies. She was sharply critical during a hearing last month on the Assembly’s policy of not tracking sexual harassment complaints, only investigations. She wants to mandate better tracking by the Legislature and other employers.
“The only way that were going to know if there’s a pattern is if we keep track of this,” Reyes said.
Regarding the state budget, another top concern for lawmakers, the governor must submit his blueprint by Jan. 10. Lawmakers must send a final spending proposal to Brown, who is term-limited out of office, by mid-June.
The Assembly has already staked out budget priorities, including providing health care for people living in the state illegally and expanding a tax credit for the working poor. The Senate hasn’t outlined its ideas.