Bills on card check, climate change and well permitting have captured the attention of agricultural organizations as debates heat up in the final week of session for the California Legislature. Lawmakers are rapidly firing through hundreds of bills and many others are likely to pop up before the they close shop on Aug. 31.

The top priority is Assembly Bill 2183. Labor advocates are pushing to allow mail-in voting for farmworker union elections. Yet critics fear other provisions in the bill would allow unions unfettered access to ballots. The bill is nearly identical to one Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed last year, though the author, Assemblymember Mark Stone of Monterey Bay, has emphasized that he is working with the governor’s office as well as the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to ease potential concerns from the administration.

Like AB 616 in 2021, AB 2183 has gained backing from a coalition of progressive Democrats and advanced through several committees and across the Assembly floor along party lines. And again the bill’s sponsor, United Farm Workers, is leading a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to rally for donations and support, gaining widespread media attention along the way. The major difference this year is UFW has rejoined the California Labor Federation, an alliance of unions that wields a strong influence over Sacramento politicians, particularly since the federation’s newly appointed leader, former-Asm. Lorena Gonzalez, was until recently one of the most powerful lawmakers in the Legislature.

Michael Miiller, director of government relations for the California Association of Winegrape Growers, hopes Newsom will again veto the measure, as two other governors have done with similar bills. He told Agri-Pulse that UFW is trying to seize control of the union election process.

“It would be like giving Trump or Biden control of the full election in 2020, where they get to collect the ballots, fill them out and then turn them into the elections offices themselves,” he said.

Matthew Allen, vice president of state government affairs at the Western Growers Association, agreed that no party that has a financial interest in the process should have anything to do with the handling of representation cards for the ballots, adding that UFW could pocket the cards for a year or never turn them once it has the majority of the votes.

Michael MiillerMichael Miiller, California Association of Winegrape Growers A separate provision in the bill dealing with the process for appealing orders from the Agricultural Labor Relations Board raised more alarms. Allen claimed it would violate basic due process and create an ethical conflict by setting up the board as a gateway for determining if an employer could appeal an ALRB order — before the employer even made a case for appeal. While appeal bonds are common in law, they are determined by the court system, a neutral third party, he explained.

California Farm Bureau Administrator Jim Houston clarified that agriculture does not have issues with the concept of mail-in ballots but described this bill as card check disguised as a measure on mail-in voting.

The Newsom administration has remained silent on the bill, but has maintained negotiations with Stone on AB 2183 and is reportedly considering a bill that would codify into law the governor’s executive order on groundwater well drilling.

AB 2201 would require counties to run new well proposals by groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs), adding more paperwork and another layer of reviews for well applications, potentially slowing the process for months.

Earlier this month the Senate Appropriations Committee softened the measure with new amendments. The bill would no longer require counties to accept a GSA’s findings and it now targets only new wells, rather than upgrades and maintenance. This happened as the Community Water Center rallied outside on the Capitol steps to pass the measure along with others related to protecting drinking water.

But the changes did not go far enough to ease agricultural opposition. Miiller said the bill just sets up needless roadblocks to putting in a well.

“If you're trying to prohibit a well, just prohibit the well,” he said, while questioning the need for such a bill because the governor already covered the issue in his order.

Allen called it extraordinarily concerning that AB 2201 would make a permanent change in the law, while Houston was weary after years of such water battles.

“The water pressures being put on the food producers of the United States of America — specifically in the Central Valley of California — is going to negatively impact food production and accelerate food price inflation,” said Houston. “Further restricting access to this valuable resource at a time when it is most scarce is something we hope the legislature does not do.”

With just a week left in the session, the governor is pushing to introduce a list of aggressive new climate actions. Agriculture, alongside business groups and the oil and gas industry, is raising alarms over the potential energy costs to ratepayers that could result from such legislation — at a time when the state is issuing flex alerts to conserve energy.

The governor has sent lawmakers bill language for five proposals he would like them to immediately flesh out. Dairy Cares Executive Director Michael Boccadoro is worried about two of the proposals that would expedite the adoption of renewable energy sources to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 and set a more aggressive 2030 goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He argued the goals would ramp up costs for energy, housing, fuel and food.

“California seems hell bent on passing the Inflation Acceleration Act,” said Boccadoro, juxtaposing the state’s efforts to those in the federal inflation relief package. “They have huge economic ramifications for not just the business community, but every resident in the state. And, frankly, the impacts will be hardest on the on low-income Californians who can least afford it.”

He was also frustrated over the process for introducing such impactful policy, since it came well into the 11th hour of the session, skipped public debate in policy committees and comes with no details on how to achieve the goals.

A rule requiring bills to be in print for three days before casting final votes means that some new measures are likely to appear later this week. Lawmakers often cannibalize bills that have already sailed through committees in order to stitch together ambitious new policies at the last minute. The governor’s climate goals could manifest in budget trailer bills just ahead of the deadline.

Boccadoro also said the state has plenty of aspirational goals and should spend more time trying to figure out how to achieve those rather than add more on. He was frustrated lawmakers spent much of the legislative session on measures that could increase energy and fuel costs rather than attempting to alleviate those costs.

Matthew AllenMatthew Allen, Western Growers Association

“How you're going to get [to these goals], when we can barely keep the lights on now should be concerning to everyone,” he said, in reference to the flex alert for conserving energy the state issued during a heat wave last week.

Similarly, Houston said the state would better help with combating climate change by supporting agriculture.

“Any food that is grown outside of California is worse for the climate,” he said. “To the extent that these policies increase the amount of food grown in California, we're happy.”

Yet Houston did worry about setting potentially costly new climate goals when economic indicators portend a recession on the horizon.

Allen agreed the proposals present a food security issue and could create more uncertainty for agriculture, which is already grappling with extreme drought, record inflation, supply chain impacts and new restrictions on independent contractors.

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A handful of other measures have gained a watchful eye from agriculture as well. Farm groups have lined up in opposition to AB 2146, which would ban nearly all nonagricultural uses of several neonicotinoid pesticides. Policy advocate Louie Brown, representing several farm groups, has argued the bill undermines the regulatory process set out by the Department of Pesticide Regulation and would enable invasive pests to proliferate, further spreading diseases like citrus greening.

Likewise, Allen said a measure on upgrading the state’s heat and smoke standards exists in the wrong venue and usurps the scientific process. He noted California’s workplace regulatory agency already considered such proposals in its rulemaking process for both standards. Miiller, meanwhile, criticized the bill for its poor writing and said the author has not worried about changing simple drafting errors in the text that arose from the law students who crafted the language.

“It would be really nice if the Legislature would be a little more deliberative on good public policy, instead of simply counting their votes,” he said.

Allen also worried about a bill proposing a new mandate for recycling thermaform containers, arguing it would place more burdens on the entire food system.

Another broadly reaching measure, SB 1162 would require companies to publicly disclose pay data to identify disparities on gender, ethnicity or race and has gained heavy opposition from business groups. Miiller posed a myriad of situations where the bill would impact growers. It would require farm labor contractors and growers to report on the same workers, leaving growers vulnerable to inaccurate information the contractor would have to share with them, he explained.

“It's really not helpful from a public policy perspective, and it's a nuisance from the grower’s perspective,” he said. “It gives meaningless, needless information that is confusing and doesn't help do anything.”

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