In a Legislature dominated by Democrats, closed-door decisions leave few clues to the many policy debates that impact agriculture and rural interests. Lawmakers decided the fate of hundreds of bills in such a manner last week, when appropriations committees prevented several from advancing or added “poison pill” amendments.

Topping the watch list for agricultural lobbyists were two companion bills aimed at increasing corporate accountability for climate impacts. Senate Bill 253 would require farmers to report their Scope 3 emissions to food processors and other businesses further up the supply chain. SB 261 would mandate that companies disclose their financial risks from climate change. Proponents held a rally ahead of the appropriations hearing to boost support for the ambitious legislation, which failed to gather enough votes last year to pass the Legislature.

The measures passed out of the committee but gained new amendments that would task the Air Resources Board (CARB) with levying fees on businesses to finance the cost of implementing the unprecedented regulations. The proposals would layer on more compliance costs for farmers facing yet another increase in regulatory fees from the State Water Resources Control Board, which is set to approve a roughly 6% increase for irrigated lands and confined animal programs.

CARB—along with a coalition of agriculture and business trade groups—supported an amendment that would have removed the Scope 3 emissions from SB 253, according to the Agricultural Council of California. But the amendment did not make it into the bill.

The debates now shift to a broader discussion among all assemblymembers in the floor hearings ahead.

The legislative session began with a series of controversial bills seeking to overhaul aspects of the state’s water rights system and its groundwater management paradigm following a devastating drought. The remaining bill to face strong opposition from farm groups was held in committee last week.

Steve Bennet on Assembly floorAsm. Steve Bennett, D-Ventura

Assembly Bill 560 would have required the Department of Water Resources to review settlement agreements in groundwater adjudications before final approval. Assemblymember Steve Bennett of Ventura argued powerful corporate agribusinesses are sidestepping local groundwater sustainability agencies through the court adjudication process. The California Chamber of Commerce, however, warned the adjudication process is already complicated, expensive and lengthy and AB 560 would exacerbate those issues.

Other policies emerging from the drought sought to improve the state’s water supply. Building on Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2022 goals for expanding the water supply, Sen. Angelique Ashby of Sacramento hoped to set a target of recharging 10 million acre-feet (maf) of groundwater annually by 2035, more than double the capacity of the state’s largest reservoir. But Assembly amendments significantly diluted the proposal to instead require the Department of Water Resources to recommend actions as part of a planned strategy update in 2028. In June, DWR estimated the state is only recharging 3.3 maf this year, despite breaking precipitation records last winter and executive orders to streamline recharge permits.

Policymakers have also pushed to improve weather forecasting to better inform reservoir operations and retain more water amid flood operations. On Friday Newsom signed a bill backed by Wine Country water agencies that will expand a novel forecasting program to more parts of the state. Sen. Melissa Hurtado of Bakersfield had pushed for more changes, authoring a measure requiring DWR to overhaul its water supply forecasting model and make improvements every year. But the bill failed to pass out of Assembly Appropriations.

Yet a recent bill that has garnered scorn from agricultural interests is gaining momentum. AB 399 would move the goalposts for San Diego County avocado growers seeking to switch to a cheaper water supplier. The measure survived last week’s bill culling but lost its urgency clause in the process, buying more time for the growers to finalize their divorce before AB 399 would take effect next year.

Labor issues have now usurped water bills for prominence in the policy realm. Legislative leaders are considering a special exemption from the fiscal deadline for a new bill that would provide unemployment pay to striking union workers. The Assembly Appropriations Committee will hold a special hearing on SB 799 on Thursday.

Agriculture groups have been paying closer attention to SB 616, a bill that would expand paid sick leave to seven days starting in January. An amendment chopped the proposal down to five days, making it a more modest increase from the current three-day standard, but it still includes a provision to calculate the wage from a weekly pay average, meaning a farmworker could earn their peak harvest pay while out sick for a week.

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Agricultural employers have raised concerns over a bill on workplace violence, arguing it would disrupt an ongoing rulemaking process at the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA. The agency is planning to adopt a new prevention standard soon. SB 553 would preempt the regulation by mandating employers log all violent incidents and ensure employees can report those incidents without the fear of retaliation. New amendments align the bill more closely with the Cal/OSHA proposal.

Agricultural opponents secured a victory with an environmental justice bill relating to cleaning up air quality in socially disadvantaged communities. AB 849 would have converted a popular incentives program into a potential avenue for new regulations across several agencies, raising fears over additional emissions requirements for trucks and local pesticide restrictions. The Senate Appropriations Committee prevented the measure from advancing.

Many of the policy battles at the center of the great appropriations culling last week extended beyond the Legislature. Newsom signaled he wanted only his bond proposal on shoring up mental health resources to go before voters on the March primary ballot. That led to the slow demise of five bond proposals aimed at filling state budget gaps for climate spending, flood control and sustainable agriculture programs amid the ongoing revenue deficit. The final bond bill in the series died last week. It focused on climate-smart agriculture, farmworker well-being, healthy food access, and regional food infrastructure. All of the measures could return in January to vie for slots on an increasingly busy November ballot.

Hundreds more measures passed out of the appropriations committees and await floor debate. Lawmakers now have less than two weeks to cast the final votes on that legislation, triggering a one-month window for Newsom to sign or veto the bills.

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