Now that the window has closed on California’s bill-signing season, with Governor Gavin Newsom weighing in on the roughly 900 pieces of legislation forwarded to his office, here are a few thoughts on what the annual Sacramento ritual says about the current state of the Golden State.

Newsom’s Image Crafting. Being governor of California is a job tailor-made for last-word freaks. Not only does the governor in America’s most populous state have line-item veto authority that allows the trimming of state budgets (a privilege that Ronald Reagan used to his advantage), but the bill-signing process also gives the chief executive the final say in legislative matters—well, technically not so, but keep in mind that California’s state legislature hasn’t overridden a veto since the late 1970s.

For Newsom, the choice in 2023 seems to have been to showcase (or have the media buy into) the notion of restraint and moderation. This Los Angeles Times news analysis came with the following ringing headline: “With actions on drug laws, mental health and labor, Newsom moves toward center in second term.” The San Francisco Chronicle likened the stylishly coiffed governor to “an ink blot . . . with great hair” who “managed to be “super liberal” but “very cautious with bill signings and vetoes.”

What Newsom also did was give the impression that he was channeling his predecessor, Jerry Brown, who famously subscribed to the “canoe theory” of governing—paddle left, paddle right, stay in the midstream. But Newsom learned one other lesson from Brown: when looking to avoid policies a governor doesn’t want to endorse, plead fiscal responsibility. Brown did it with regard to single-payer healthcare. Newsom went down the same path, with some veto messages carrying variations of this sentiment: “With our state facing continuing economic risk and revenue uncertainty, it is important to remain disciplined in considering bills with significant fiscal implications, such as this measure.”

Remember those words should California’s rollercoaster ride of an economy take off between now and 2026, which is Newsom’s last year in office.

Sacramento (In)Efficiency. A month ago, and in this same space, I wrote about bill signing and Newsom’s concern about affixing his signature to bills that maybe wouldn’t boost his national aspirations, i.e., more grist for the mill of the Golden State as a laughing stock (indeed, it happened—more on that in a moment).

The bill I targeted as a potential punchline: the decriminalization of hallucinogenic substances, or “magic mushrooms.”

What I overlooked: the inefficiency of a system in which the legislature sends a measure to the governor, who then rejects the measure because it lacks a provision he’d like to see included in order to earn his signature.

In this case, Newsom vetoed SB 58, which would have allowed adults (21 and over) to possess psilocybin (found in psychedelic mushrooms), plus dimethyltryptamine (also a hallucinogen) and mescaline (an alkaloid found in cacti).

Newsom used his veto message to underscore that he supports “new opportunities to address mental health through psychedelic medicines.” But he also included this kicker: “California should immediately begin work to set up regulated treatment guidelines—replete with dosing information, therapeutic guidelines, rules to prevent against exploitation during guided treatments, and medical clearance of no underlying psychoses. Unfortunately, this bill would decriminalize possession prior to these guidelines going into place, and I cannot sign it.”

The question: Did Newsom share his insistence upon “therapeutic guidelines” with lawmakers before they forwarded the flawed bill? Or, did he move the goal posts once the bill arrived in his office? Either way, it speaks to inefficiency in a system in which—theoretically, at least—the executive and legislative branches should be communicating with each other.  

The Joke’s Still on California. Now, onto the comedy portion of the show . . .

If you watched last weekend’s installment of Saturday Night Live (more Taylor Swift and Travis Kelceoy vey!) and made it to the “Weekend Update” portion of the show, you may have heard mention of a new California law: SB 673—and this tasteless joke made at its expense.

The law in question, just signed by Newsom, gives local law enforcement the authority to contact the California Highway Patrol in cases of Black persons ages 12–25 who’ve gone missing under unusual circumstances; the CHP then issues a so-called “Ebony Alert.” (California also has “AMBER Alerts” for abducted children, “Blue Alerts” for violent attacks on law enforcement officers, “Silver Alerts” for elderly, developmentally, or cognitively impaired missing persons, “Yellow Alerts” to track the vehicles of hit-and-run suspects, and “Feather Alerts” for missing Indigenous persons.)

Before we go any further, I do not in any way want to give the impression that a child gone missing is a laughable matter. In fact, I arrived in California not long after the tragic loss of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old girl abducted from her home in Petamula and murdered 30 years ago this month by a career criminal—her death leading to the implementation of California’s “Three Strikes” law and a transformation of the Golden State’s criminal justice system.

The rationale behind “Ebony Alerts” is one of addressing racial inequality: while 38% of the people who went missing in 2022 were Black, according to the Black and Missing Foundation, missing Black people are less likely than White people to have their stories the focus of concerted media attention.

Would that California’s governor apply the same standard to his state’s public schools, where graduation rates for Black students have been in decline and the learning gap constitutes racial injustice in the form of learning outcomes. (In California, about 70% of Black students failed to meet state testing standards for English language arts in the 2021–22 school year, compared with less than 40% of White students, according to state data; About 84% of Black students didn’t meet math standards, compared with about 50% of White students).

Now, that’s not funny, is it?

First . . . Always First. One final aspect of bill signing that’s been true of each of the five times Gavin Newsom has engaged in this process: the governor’s “first-in-the-nation” fetishization and crowing that the Golden State is breaking new ground.

In 2023, that included Newsom signing a pair of climate measures requiring large public and privately held corporations doing business in the Golden State to reveal their environmental impact (scope 3 emissions, plus assessments of how climate change affects corporate profits).

Also a national first: Newsom lending his signature to AB 418, dubbed “the Skittles ban” in State Capitol circles (actually, its formal title is the California Food Safety Act).

The new law forbids the “manufacturing, selling, delivering, distributing, holding, or offering for sale” of food products that contain any of four additives—brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propylparaben, and red dye 3—currently found in about 12,000 candies, cereals, and sodas.

Does that mean that Skittles, the beloved rainbow-colored candy, is now banned from California? Not quite (an earlier version of the bill included and later dropped the chemical titanium dioxide, which gives the candy its color). That said, it could spell trouble for a couple of Halloween staples: Peeps and Brach’s candy corn.

And that could spell trouble down the road for Newsom should he one day become a national candidate. The entertainer Mario Lopez torched the governor on his X account (“Crime is through the roof, worst drug epidemic ever & homelessness at an all-time high in CA . . . Let’s focus on Skittles”). A more enterprising Sacramento press corps might want to inquire as to what California’s First Family plans to hand out to trick-or-treaters later this month. Or if, like John F. Kennedy hoarding Cuban cigars soon before imposing a trade embargo on that island nation, the Newsoms have a secret stash of sugary treats.

Which is the last takeaway from this year’s bill signing: only in California can a governor feel it’s safe to steal candy from babies—and potential voters.

overlay image