If California Attorney General Xavier Becerra thought he would get a respite from fighting the Trump administration as the holiday season approached, a federal judge in Texas disabused him of the notion on Dec. 14.
That was when Judge Reed O’Connor issued his notorious ruling that the entire Affordable Care Act would be invalid as of New Year’s Day, when the penalty for individuals going without health insurance drops to zero. That forced Becerra, who is leading a coalition of 17 mostly blue states defending the law, into a compressed schedule of appeal motions; the coalition filed one brief Dec. 17 and another was due two days after Christmas.
But that’s just one harbinger of the year ahead. In 2018, California filed 44 lawsuits or motions in cases challenging Trump administration policies, Becerra says. “You’ll see that 2019 is a year when we bring a lot of these cases to a head,” he told me. Some will go to trial; others are in line for rulings on permanent injunctions.
The topics cover the full spectrum of Trump policy-making: Besides the Affordable Care Act, California is participating in court cases protecting the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which established a path to legal status for people brought illegally into the U.S. as children; blocking a plan to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census, which could discourage immigrants from responding and cost California a House seat and millions of dollars in federal funding; and rolling back auto-efficiency standards.
Californians could be forgiven for thinking the Trump administration has targeted the state for especially harsh treatment. But some conflicts between Trump’s retrograde policies and California’s progressive environmental rules and tolerance of immigrants probably were preordained.
The Trump administration might have pursued some of its initiatives even if California didn’t exist: A threat to enforce federal marijuana laws was aimed at all the states that have legalized the drug, such as Washington and Colorado; proposals to promote more offshore oil drilling affect states on both coasts (although the administration offered an exemption to Florida, which has a GOP government); the rollback of network neutrality and clean-car regulations largely reflect the desires of big business.
On the other hand, the administration hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to find a modus vivendi with the most populous state in the union (and one that gave Hillary Clinton her largest margin over Trump in the 2016 election). In the very first week of the year, Thomas Homan, then the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, responded to the state’s “sanctuary” laws by warning on Fox News, “California better hold on tight. They’re about to see a lot more special agents, a lot more deportation officers in the state of California.” Sanctuary laws generally place limits on local police involvement in federal immigration enforcement.
But another prong of the administration’s attack on California’s immigrant policies failed, when a federal judge barred the government from withholding law-enforcement grants from the state and other sanctuary jurisdictions. The ruling protected some $29 million in grants to California.
California’s pushback has been aided by the sheer ineptitude of decision-making in the Trump White House. Consider the administration’s effort to reduce the government’s auto-efficiency goal for 2025 to 37 miles per gallon from the current goal of 54.5 mpg. Included in the effort was the threat to overturn a waiver allowing California to set its own stringent standards, which are followed by a dozen states accounting for more than one-third of the nationwide auto market. Rolling those standards back nationwide, as Trump intends, all but necessitates nullifying the waiver.
Becerra is leading a coalition of 16 other states and the District of Columbia to challenge the rollback in court; the government has replied that their lawsuit should be dismissed as premature because the rule change isn’t final.
But when and if the courts take up the scheme on its merits, the judges will have to take a close look at the science underlying the proposal — or its absence. Early this month, a team of 11 scientists from USC; Carnegie Mellon; Yale; and UC campuses in Berkeley, San Diego and Davis issued a blistering critique of the government’s claim that the rollback would save consumers money and make the roads safer. Writing in Science, the researchers reported that the government analysis had ignored $112 billion in benefits that tipped the scale in favor of the tighter standards.
“It appears federal officials cherry-picked data to support a predetermined conclusion,” the paper’s lead author, Antonio M. Bento of USC, told The Times. “And it was done in a very sloppy fashion, by inflating the costs and cutting the benefits in an almost embarrassing, dishonest way.”
In its haste to deregulate, moreover, the administration has trampled administrative procedures for reversing established government policies. As a result, some efforts at deregulation have been thrown out in court as “arbitrary and capricious” — among them, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ blocking of loan relief for students defrauded by for-profit colleges such as Corinthian Colleges.
In the coming year, the state will face the challenge of making good on the fundamental claim underlying its confrontation with the Trump White House — that its values and policies foster a better lifestyle for its residents.
“It’s not about just suing the government, but showing that extending health insurance to immigrants makes the state healthier,” says Manuel Pastor, a USC sociologist whose latest book, “State of Resistance,” traces the evolution of California politics and social reform from the immigrant-bashing era of 1994’s Proposition 187 to today’s embrace of immigration as an economic and demographic strength. “It’s not just a question of criticizing the Trump administration for wanting to take apart Obamacare, but showing that if you don’t, things are better. We have to be not just the state of resistance, but the state of results.”
That also means addressing the negative consequences of progressive policies that Californians have shown they support. “We have to make sure that small businesses get through the increase in the minimum wage successfully,” Pastor adds. (The statewide minimum wage rises Jan. 1 to $11 an hour for employers with fewer than 26 workers and $12 for bigger employers, on its way to $15 in 2023 for small employers and in 2022 for all others.)
While California communities observe sanctuary principles to resist allowing their law enforcement departments to help immigration authorities enforce federal law in the face of administration claims that undocumented immigrants bring crime, “we have to make sure our communities are safe.”
Pastor observes that California demographics point to the destiny of the U.S. as a whole; its status as a majority-minority state — that is, nonwhites as the majority — was first documented in the 2000 census. Further demographic challenges in which California will again lead the nation lie ahead, chiefly the aging of the population. The percentage of residents 65 and over will rise to 26% in 2060 from about 12% now. “That will require much more of a caring economy,” Pastor says, “with more family leave and better treatment of care workers.”
California also has an opportunity to show it can grapple with its own persistent social and economic problems, which mirror the nation’s. The state was one of the first to enact a $15-per-hour minimum wage, but it is also the state in which income inequality has risen faster than in most of the rest of the country. The state ranks fourth in that dismal metric.
The state’s public infrastructure — its freeways, parks and university system — once was the envy of the nation but has fallen into disrepair. Does California offer a solution to the same malady nationwide? A gas tax enacted by the legislature to pay for road improvements was endorsed by voters in November, but the University of California struggles to compensate for the steady erosion of support via the state budget.
California hasn’t been perfect in upholding principles of the social inclusiveness, environmental protection and public health that it likes to proclaim as California values, but the hostility emanating from the White House presents a unique challenge.
Becerra points to a couple of victories notched as a result of lawsuits filed by California and other states: The government has resumed accepting applications for renewal of DACA work permits, which is required every two or three years, following an order issued early in 2018 by a federal judge in Northern California. And in July, Andrew Wheeler, the acting head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, closed a loophole that allowed more heavily polluting trucks on U.S. roads that had been opened by his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, as his final act before being forced out of office under an ethical cloud.
Pruitt’s action was the subject of separate lawsuits filed by three environmental groups and 16 states led by California; Wheeler acted before an appeals court could consider whether to permanently block Pruitt’s action.
“Before we ended having to go into court, Wheeler undid Pruitt’s action,” Becerra says. “We think that was a consequence of his seeing his former boss suffer a number of defeats already. They’re paying attention to our lawsuits.”
Becerra says he’s confident that more victories will follow in 2019. “We can tell 40 million Californians that they shouldn’t worry about the footsteps behind you — we’ve got your back. Just continue to be the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the college graduates that keep California clicking and forward-looking.”
By Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times