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The Indivisible Guide to the California State Legislature

There is a common phrase that’s tossed around in California state politics — “As goes California, so goes the nation” — the idea that landmark policy change is first enacted in the most populous state, and then spreads to other states, and eventually Congress.

California is the fifth largest economy in the world and houses 12% of the United States population. Our state legislature has a Democratic supermajority in both houses and progressive Democratic governor. With this level of economic might and political power, we can make progressive policy a reality in California and serve as a model for other states and the federal government to follow.

Unfortunately, the legislative process in California is confusing and the average resident doesn’t know how to get involved, so state legislators face few demands for accountability from their constituents. As a result, many politicians are more responsive to the energy, pharmaceutical, tobacco, agriculture and real estate lobbies, and progressive policy changes that we support are lost. But because legislators are not used to hearing from their constituents, small numbers of calls can make a huge difference.

Indivisible groups in California have coalesced into a statewide coalition called Indivisible CA: StateStrong and are ready to make waves in California politics through constituent power!

In this guide, we’ll walk you through how the California State Legislature operates. For more information on the importance of state advocacy, what motivates state legislators, and how to get started, check out the Indivisible States Guide.

The California Legislature 101

The Basics

California has a bicameral legislature, which means there are two chambers: the Assembly and the Senate. The Assembly has 80 members: currently 60 Democrats and 20 Republicans. Meanwhile, the Senate has 40 members: currently 27 Democrats and 13 Republicans. The Assembly is led by the Assembly Speaker, Anthony Rendon, and the Senate is led by the Senate Pro Tempore, Toni Atkins.

Legislative sessions in California last for two years. The current two-year legislative session met briefly in December to swear in new legislators but began proper on January 7, 2019 and ends in August of 2020. Each year within the legislative session has its own legislative timeline with deadlines for bills to move through the legislative process. However, any legislation that is introduced in January 2019 but does not pass by the end of 2019 can be picked up and continue through the legislative process in 2020 without needing to be re-introduced. In odd numbered years, the legislative year goes from January to October. In even numbered years, the legislative session goes from January to August to allow legislators time to campaign for their elections in September - November.

Bill ideas are hatched in late winter. After a year’s legislative session ends, legislators begin to collect ideas for legislation for the following year. They meet with advocates, policy experts, and lobbyists who propose bill ideas. While bills are authored by legislators, organizations can co-sponsor legislation and commit to helping the author to shepherd it through the legislative process using their own resources (e.g. policy expertise, lobbying influence, grassroots power, communications prowess, etc).

Bills travel through a streamlined process to become law. Bills must pass through committees and floor votes in both houses before being sent to the Governor for a signature. The process is marked by several stages.

  • Bill introduction: Bills are introduced at the beginning of session in their house of origin and given a number starting with AB (Assembly bill) or SB (Senate bill). No action can be taken on any newly introduced bills for 30 days. Bills may have a single primary author or several co-authors.

  • Referral to policy committee: After 30 days have passed, the Rules committee, which is chaired by the leadership of each house, refers legislation to a relevant policy committee, depending on the issue area. For example, a bill related to prescription drug pricing would go to the Health Committee in its house of origin. Bills may also be double-referred to multiple committees. It can be more difficult to get through two committees.

  • Hearing in policy committee: Next the bill must be heard in the policy committee. During a committee hearing, the support and opposition will choose a few key witnesses to testify on their positions of the bill. After the witnesses for the supporting side, there is space allocated for public comment for support, where constituents and other organizations can weigh in and quickly mention that they support the bill. To advocates, this is known as giving a “me too,” because those giving public comment usually just say their name, what organization they are with (if any), where they are from, and whether they support or oppose the bill. After public comment for the supporting side, opposing witness testimony and public comment occur. One powerful tactic that advocates utilize is to “pack the hearing” for public comment. After public comment, legislators ask questions, debate the bill, and ultimately either vote or hold the bill.

  • Appropriations committee: After passing policy committee, bills go the Appropriations Committee which analyze the fiscal impact of the bill. All bills which have a fiscal note of more than $150,000 in the Assembly and $50,000 in the Senate (this is most bills) are referred to something known as the Appropriations Suspense File. Once bills go the suspense file, legislators lobby the chair of the Appropriations Committee to take their bills “off suspense.” This process is secretive with no public visibility. In the suspenseful suspense file hearing, all the chosen bills are pulled off suspense, voted on, and passed. The others are left on the suspense file to die.

  • Floor vote: Once out of Appropriations, the bills now are ready to go to the full floor for a vote. First, bills must undergo a Second Reading, where they are simply read into the record as being ready for a floor vote. The final vote for the bill is known as the Third Reading. 72 hours must elapse between the last amendment of a bill and its third reading.

  • Actions in the second house: Once a bill passes through all of the aforementioned steps first house, it must go through all of those same steps in the second house again.

  • Concurrence vote: If a bill is significantly amended in the second house, it must quickly return to the house of origin for a full floor vote to concur in the new amendments. If the house of origin does not agree to the new amendments, a conference committee consisting of members from both chambers must iron out the differences.

  • Governor’s signature: Once a bill passes both chambers of the legislature, it heads to the governor’s desk where he must sign or veto it. If he does nothing, the bill becomes law without signing it. The legislature could override a gubernatorial veto with ⅔ majority in both chambers, but it’s a cultural norm in the legislature.

The legislative process is marked by key deadlines. Luckily for advocates, California’s legislative process contains a series of deadlines (see below) to ensure that legislation moves along the process. This allows us to understand when bills will likely be in a committee versus voted on the floor and to plan our strategic activism tactics accordingly.

Key 2019 Legislative Session Dates

  • January 7: Legislature convenes

  • January 10: Governor releases budget

  • February 22: Deadline to introduce bills

  • Originating House

    • March- April: Committee hearings

    • April 26th: Deadline for bill to pass policy committee

    • Mid May: Bill heard in Appropriations

    • May 17th: Deadline for bill to pass Appropriations

    • Last week of May: Bill heard on floor of the original house

    • May 31st: Deadline for bills to pass out of the first house

  • Second House

    • Early/Mid June: Committee hearings

    • June 29th: Deadline for bill to pass policy committee

    • Mid August: Bill heard in Appropriations

    • August 30th: Deadline for bill to pass Appropriations

    • Early Sept: Bill heard on floor of the second house

    • September 13th: Deadline to pass and send to Governor

  • Mid-Sept: Bill sent to Governor

  • October 13th: Deadline for Governor signature

The Inside Scoop

While the legislative process tends to follow the steps outlined above, there are some extra intricacies to be aware of.

  • Recently, the Senate has been known to be a bit more progressive than the Assembly, which has a secret caucus of moderate corporate Democrats (who advocates like to refer to as “the mod squad”), who silently kill progressive priorities behind the scenes.

  • Leadership exercises a lot of power over the fate of bills. They determine who chairs and participates in which legislative committees and which bills get referred to what committee. If leadership doesn’t like a bill, they may refer the bill to a committee with more conservative members or double-refer it to multiple committees. They can also secretly pressure members to kill bills in committee or refuse to bring the bill up for a vote.

  • The Appropriations Suspense File is also known as “where bills go to die” in California politics. The suspense file process is full of political horse trading between legislators, leadership, and the Appropriations Committee chairs (Senator Portantino and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez).

  • Legislators sometimes “gut and amend” bills by removing the entire content of a bill and replacing it with completely new language to be about something entirely different. These bills just continue through the legislative process from wherever they were and do not have to start all over again. This can be used to respond urgently to news or events or to circumvent difficult parts of the legislative process.

  • “Urgency” bills go into effect immediately. These bills need ⅔ vote to pass, but are exempt from any of the standard legislative deadlines.

Learn about your state elected officials

You can look up your CA state legislators here.

Look up how well they represent progressive values by looking up their Courage Score.

Indivisible States also has lots of information on how to learn about who represents you in the state legislature and how to keep track of what they’re up to.

Tips for tracking bills

You can read legislation and find out where it is in the legislative process on the California legislature’s website. Check out Indivisible CA: StateStrong’s resource on how to research a bill on leginfo.

LegiScan is a free online legislative tracking tool that allows you to track legislation in one state and Congress. If you choose California as your state, you can track bills that you are interested in and receive alerts when they are scheduled for hearings, debates, and votes.

Twitter is also a great resource for learning about what is happening in Albany minute by minute. Political reporters tweet from inside the statehouse, often providing real time updates of floor debates and committee hearings. Check out these twitter lists:

Check out Indivisible States!

Now that you understand how the California Legislature, works, be sure to check out our Indivisible States Guide. It has more information on campaign development and tactics, developing strong partnerships with local advocates and reporters, and more.