Historic California Legislation

A quick review of California's legislative history reveals important laws passed in the 20th century that are still enacted today. Each of these historical bills has had an impact on the citizens of California. Significant bills passed in that time have included women’s right to vote, smog reduction, tax cuts, increased rights and wages for workers, imposed stricter laws on criminals, and others.

  • 1990-1999
  • 1982-1989
  • 1970-1979
  • 1959-1969
  • 1933-1947
  • 1911-1913

1990 - Term Limits

Proposition 140, a citizens' initiative, limits lifetime tenure in the Assembly to three terms of two years and in the Senate to two four-year terms after the 1990 elections. (Senators who are halfway through their four-year terms in 1990 are permitted only one additional term.) State constitutional officers are limited to two terms of four years each. Proposed 140 reduces legislative spending by about 38 percent and imposes a cap on increases. The measure is upheld in the federal courts. (Approved by 52.2 percent of voters.)

1994 - Three Strikes

Two virtually identical versions of a "Three Strikes" law are adopted by the Legislature and by voter initiative to require sentences of 25 years to life in prison upon conviction of a third felony if the previous two were serious or violent. It's the toughest sentencing law in the country.

1996 - Affirmative Action

By a vote of 54.5 percent, Californians approve Proposition 209, a citizens' initiative to amend the state Constitution to prohibit discrimination or preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity or gender in public education, employment and contracting. The previous year, the Board of Regents voted to end racial, ethnic and gender considerations in admissions and hiring at the University of California over the objections of the UC president, the chancellors of the nine campuses, and faculty and student organizations. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 lets stand an appellate court ruling that Proposition 209 is constitutional.

1996 - Class-Size reduction

The Legislature and Governor Wilson enact the Class Size Reduction Program with the goal of limiting public-school classes from kindergarten through third grade to no more than 20 students. The state provides $530 million in grants to school districts to pay for portable classrooms and other costs associated with creating more classrooms.

1999 - Domestic Partnership and Gay Rights

Domestic partnerships are recognized as household relationships, with some legal effects, between same-sex adults of any age and between persons of opposite sexes over age 62. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is outlawed in housing, workplaces, and educational institutions.

1982 - Rights of Crime Victims

The Victim's Bill of Rights grants crime victims a constitutional right to restitution, expands relevant evidence permitted in criminal cases and gives victims and their families a right to express their views at sentencing hearings. Proposition 8, an initiative, is approved by 56.4 percent of voters.

1987 - Smoking

The Legislature votes to ban smoking on in-state flights. In 1993, smoking is prohibited in public buildings. Governor Pete Wilson in 1994 signs one of the nation's toughest anti-smoking laws to prohibit smoking in enclosed workplaces, with some limited exemptions. Voters the same year defeat an initiative backed by tobacco giant Philip Morris to ease the restrictions.

1989 - Guns

Outraged by a gunman's killing of five Asian refugee children and his wounding of 29 other youngsters and a teacher with a rapid-fire AK-47 in a Stockton schoolyard, the Legislature outlaws military-type assault rifles. A "zero tolerance" law in 1995 requires students who carry guns or pull knives at public schools to be expelled. In the wake of another deadly round of school shootings in 1999, Governor Gray Davis signs bills to strengthen the definition of prohibited assault weapons, ban importation or sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines, and require handguns to have safety devices and to pass safety tests. Buyers are limited to the purchase of one gun per month, with the aim of curtailing bulk purchases for resale on the streets. Minors are barred from gun shows unless accompanied by guardians. Weapons at the shows must be labeled with the owner's name, signature and driver's license number.

1970 - No-Fault Divorce

California becomes the first state to pass a no-fault divorce law, meaning neither spouse must prove the fault of the other to gain a divorce. A spouse can obtain a divorce without the consent of the other and no grounds are necessary. Financial support is based on needs and resources rather than linked to fault.

1972 - Death Penalty

Responding to a 1972 state Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional, voters the same year restore capital punishment with an initiative stating it does not constitute cruel or unusual punishment. This constitutional amendment is one of the earliest anti-crime measures put on a California ballot. It's approved by 67.5 percent of voters.

1974 - Affirmative Action

Governor Reagan signs legislation giving the State Personal Board responsibility for evaluating progress toward affirmative-action goals in state civil service. The board's first annual report of its efforts in 1974 calls for achieving "a state work force with each ethnic group and women represented by occupation, responsibility and salary level in proportion to its representation in the labor market." Following up, a 1977 law states, "Each agency and department [in state government] shall establish goals and timetables designed to overcome any identified under-utilization of minorities and women in their respective organizations."

1977 - Alternative Energy

Governor Brown and the Legislature enact the nation's largest tax-incentive program for encouraging development of solar energy. The following year, the state sets a goal of meeting 10 percent of its electrical needs with wind power by the year 2000.

1978 - Property Tax Cut

Voters adopt Proposition 13, an initiative promoted by Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann to slash property taxes by more than half. It rolls real-estate assessments back to 1975 market values, sets property taxes at 1 percent of those values and caps assessment increases at no more than 2 percent yearly until property is sold or undergoes new construction. Nearly identical properties eventually will be taxed differently, depending on when they are bought and sold, an approach ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Proposition 13, a constitutional amendment approved by 64.8 percent of voters, also requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature for tax increases, and two-thirds approval by local voters for increases in local special taxes. The Legislature and Jerry Brown respond by channeling the state's multibillion-dollar surplus to cities, counties, special districts and schools, which had depended primarily on property taxes for revenue, to help offset losses. As future economic downturns squeeze the treasury, the state's funding emphasis remains on schools and local governments grow increasingly strapped. Meanwhile, voters approve a series of constitutional refinements in Proposition 13 proposed by the Legislature. Homeowners can transfer their residences to heirs without triggering reassessments (1986), those over 55 can transfer their locked-in assessment values to new homes of equal or lesser market value in the same county (1988) or to homes in other counties with those counties' approval (1993).

1979 - Domestic Violence

The Domestic Violence Prevention Act gives courts authority to grant temporary restraining orders in domestic-violence cases. Legislation for the first time makes it a crime, punishable as either a felony or misdemeanor, to rape one's spouse. Law-enforcement agencies in 1984 are required to develop written policies governing their responses to calls of domestic abuse.

1959 - Fair Employment Practices Act

Years ahead of the similar protections guaranteed by the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Legislature at the urging of Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown enacts a Fair Employment Practices Act in 1959 to prohibit race discrimination by employers and labor unions. The Unruh Civil Rights Act prohibits racial discrimination by those engaged in business activities, including real estate brokers. The Legislature follows up with laws to prohibit job and/or housing discrimination based on marital status (1976), pregnancy (1978), and sexual orientation (1999) and to prohibit sexual harassment on the job (1982).

1960 - Anti-Smog Devices

The Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Act, the first law of its kind in the country, requires installation of smog-control devices on vehicles. Federal laws by the late 1960s were requiring reduced auto emissions, but California's standards were stricter than those of the federal Clean Air Act of 1967. Later versions and amendments to the federal act toughened those standards and gave California's smoggy metropolitan areas deadlines to comply.

1969 - Clean Water Act

The Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act is adopted as one of the nation's strongest anti-pollution laws and becomes a model for the federal Clean Water Act of 1972.

1933 - Central Valley Project

The legislature authorizes construction of a state Central Valley Project, to consist of Shasta Dam on the upper Sacramento River near Redding, Friant Dam on the upper San Joaquin River near Fresno, and other dams and canals. Fifty-two percent of voters in a referendum uphold the Legislature's action in a December special election that attracts a light turnout of less than 900,000. (More than 2 million had come to the polls a year earlier.) In 1935 the financially strapped state, unable to sell bonds for a state Central Valley Project, surrenders the plan to the federal government, which authorizes construction as the federal Central Valley Project.

1935 - Pollution Control

The Dickey Water Pollution Act, the first of the modern clean-water laws, creates a State Water Pollution Control Board.

1946 - School Segregation and Integration

A state law permitting local school districts to practice racial segregation is repealed. In 1972, voters endorse an initiative stating no student can be required to attend a particular school because of race, creed or color and requiring school districts to develop plans to remedy racial imbalances.

1947 - Air Pollution

The Air Pollution Control Act allows counties to establish districts to combat smog.

1911 - Women's Suffrage

Voters grant California women the right to vote in state and local elections nine years before women win the federal franchise. California becomes the sixth state to give women voting rights, but approval is by the narrowest margin of 22 constitution amendments approved on the same ballot. A similar measure had been defeated in 1896. (Constitutional amendment, proposed by the Legislature, approved by 50.7 percent of voters.)

1911 - Labor Reform

A package of labor laws includes an eight hour day for working women, although farm labor and the canning and packing industries are excluded. Children under 18 are prohibited from working between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Wages must be paid at regular intervals. A voluntary workmen's compensation program will provide benefits in the event of on-the-job accidents. Workmen's compensation becomes mandatory in 1913 Proposition 8 permits voters to remove from public office, or recall, elected officials including judges. (Constitutional amendment, proposed by the Legislature, approved by 76.5 percent of voters.)

1911 - Right of Citizen's Initiative, Recall, and Referendum

Proposition 7 gives citizens the right to propose ballot initiatives by collecting sufficient signatures from voters. It also gives voters the right to petition to put referendums on the ballot to rescind laws or parts of laws enacted by the Legislature. (Constitutional amendment, proposed by the Legislature, approved by 76.4 percent of voters.)

1913 - Immigration and Housing Commission

A state commission on immigration and housing is created to prevent, in the words of Hiram Johnson, the kinds of "dreadful conditions of poverty" that could be found in the immigrant ghettos of East Coast cities. The commission also examines farm-labor camps and promotes housing standards for migratory workers.

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