Democratic policy lab

How the presidential candidates want to make America more like California

Legal cannabis is one area where Democratic presidential candidates want to extend California policy to the rest of the nation.

Legal cannabis is one area where Democratic presidential candidates want to extend California policy to the rest of the nation.

Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

CalMatters reporters Felicia Mello and Judy Lin contributed to this report. CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California politics and policy. An unabridged version is available at

With Democrats holding all the political power in California for nearly the last decade, the Golden State has evolved into a laboratory for big blue ideas. Put a price on carbon? We’ve done it. Provide health insurance to undocumented immigrants? We do some of that too. Gun control, minimum wage hikes and heavy taxes on the rich are also realities here.

Democratic candidates for president—with rare exceptions—don’t typically point to California as a model. But many of the major policies they’re proposing are already happening here to some degree.

Tom Steyer is the only Californian who remains in the race. Others taking a page from us include Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Boost minimum wage

What they’re proposing: All the major Democratic candidates want to more than double the federal minimum wage by raising it to $15 an hour.

What California is doing: California was the first state to approve a $15 minimum wage when lawmakers and then-Gov. Jerry Brown cut a deal with labor unions in 2016. California’s law gradually phases in wage increases over eight years, with a $15 minimum required at all businesses in 2023.

How’s it going here? Critics said the forced raises would lead employers to lay off people and replace them with machines. But research suggests that for the most part, pay increases are not pushing people out of jobs.

Give paid family leave

What they’re proposing: All major Democratic candidates say they want Americans to be able to take at least three months off work with pay to care for a new baby or seriously ill family member.

What California is doing: In 2004, California was the first state in the nation to create paid family leave, offering workers six weeks of partial pay to care for a newborn or sick family member. Workers pay for it through a 1% payroll tax. Gov. Gavin Newsom has expanded the program, giving workers eight weeks of paid family leave starting on July 1.

How’s it going here? Though almost all workers pay into the program, only half of eligible mothers and a quarter of eligible fathers took paid family leave in 2017, state officials report. Many low-wage workers don’t take paid leave because they can’t afford to get by on partial earnings. Other workers don’t take it because they may lose their jobs.

Put price on carbon

What they’re proposing: Most Democratic candidates want to curb global warming in part by putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution, such as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system. (Notable exceptions: Gabbard and Sanders told the Washington Post they oppose putting a price on carbon.) Steyer has donated millions to campaigns aiming to create carbon-pricing programs in Oregon and Washington, and defending the one in California.

What California is doing: California’s carbon-pricing program launched in 2013. The state’s cap-and-trade system forces industry here to either reduce emissions or pay for permits to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Auctions where companies buy and sell those permits yield billions of dollars, which the state government plows into programs designed to slow climate change, such as incentives for solar panels and discounts on clean cars. The cap-and-trade program covers businesses responsible for about 85 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it the most wide-reaching carbon-pricing system in the United States.

How’s it going here? California’s greenhouse gas emissions have been dropping, though it’s hard to pinpoint how much to credit the complex system. Cap and trade is one reason gas costs more in California than other states, adding about a dime per gallon.

Take guns from threats

What they’re proposing: All of the Democratic candidates say they support allowing people to petition a court to have firearms temporarily taken away from people who pose a threat to themselves or others. Bloomberg founded a gun-control group that lobbied for red-flag legislation in California; he’s now calling for such a law nationwide.

What California is doing: California passed a law permitting gun restraining orders after the 2014 Isla Vista massacre, in which a 22-year-old gunman killed six people and wounded 14. It allows immediate family members and police officers to petition the courts to have a dangerous person’s guns removed. Newsom signed a bill expanding the law so that, beginning in September 2020, coworkers, teachers and employers also can ask courts to take away someone’s guns.

How’s it going here? Academic research suggests that allowing parents and police to seek gun restraining orders is helping prevent some instances of gun violence. But journalistic investigations have found that parents and police rarely use the law, largely because so few people know about it—including those in law enforcement.

Give health care to undocumented

What they’re proposing: Almost all the Democratic candidates want the federal government to offer health insurance to undocumented immigrants. Sanders and Warren are cosponsors of the federal “Medicare For All” legislation, which would create a government-run health plan covering all residents, regardless of immigration status.

Biden and Buttiegieg have a different vision, proposing that undocumented immigrants be allowed to pay for health care through a “public option” that would exist alongside private health insurance plans.

What California is doing: California is one of a half-dozen states that provide health coverage to low-income undocumented children through Medicaid, the federal insurance program for the poor (which is called Medi-Cal in California). That began here in 2016, adding 160,000 kids at a cost of roughly $280 million a year. In 2019, California became the first state to insure some undocumented adults when lawmakers approved spending about $98 million a year to expand Medi-Cal to cover unauthorized residents age 19 to 25 (about 138,000 people).

How’s it going here? One of the arguments against government-funded health care for undocumented immigrants is that it will attract more people to unlawfully settle in the U.S. to get the benefits. California has experienced the opposite, with participation in Medi-Cal decreasing among undocumented immigrants, and unlawful immigration also on the decline.

Make college free

What they’re proposing: Democratic hopefuls fall into two groups: those who call for “free college,” and those who are distancing themselves from the term. Sanders and Warren are pushing to eliminate tuition and fees at all public colleges and universities. Sanders also would wipe out all of Americans’ $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, while Warren would focus debt relief on poor and middle-class households.

In the moderate camp, Buttigieg proposes limiting tuition breaks to families that earn less than $100,000 per year. Biden advocates waiving community college tuition for up to two years and doubling the maximum federal grant for low-income students.

What California is doing: The state offers two years of tuition-free community college for first-time, full-time students. California’s major state scholarship, the Cal Grant, can also pay for up to full tuition at both two-and four-year schools—as much as nearly $13,000 for a year at the University of California—for needy students who qualify. Smaller state grants help with living expenses for some students.

How’s it going here? While California provides more financial aid per low-income student than any other state, gaps in programs and the exorbitant cost of living here still make college unaffordable for many. That free community college plan? It grabbed headlines but actually excludes two-thirds of community college students—those who attend part time.

Tax the rich

What they’re proposing: Someone has to pay for those ambitious health and education programs so most candidates want to increase taxes on the wealthy. Warren calls for an extra 2% tax on households with a net worth of $50 million or more and a 6% tax on those worth at least $1 billion. Sanders takes the idea even further, with rates ranging from 1% on net worth over $32 million to 8% on worth more than $10 billion. Buttigieg has said he’s open to a wealth tax, but has drawn more attention for his suggestion that the highest income-tax bracket be set at 49.99%.

What California is doing: California does not have a tax on net worth, but it does have the nation’s highest income tax rate on high earners—13.3% on those making $1 million or more. That’s partly because California voters have approved a series of tax hikes on those with high incomes. In addition to its progressive income tax, California treats capital gains as any other income.

How’s it going here? A popular narrative says California may tax its wealthiest residents into fleeing the state. Data, however, don’t back this up—at least not yet. Most people leaving California earn less than $50,000 a year, and are likely driven out by the high cost of living here.

Turn gig workers into employees

What they’re proposing: Many Democrats argue that gig companies such as Uber and Lyft exploit low-wage workers by classifying them as freelancers instead of employees. Converting their status to employee would make workers eligible for more job protections and overtime pay. Sanders was the first candidate to call for national legislation to bar gig companies from classifying workers as freelancers. A few months later, Warren announced support for California legislation and pledged to enact a similar federal law. Buttigieg also promises change nationally.

What California is doing: Newsom signed legislation in 2019 requiring many businesses to reclassify independent contractors as employees. The law is projected to impact 1 million workers, including janitors, manicurists and gig workers. Some industries won exemptions, but many did not.

How’s it going here? The new law was being challenged even before it went into effect Jan. 1. Trucking companies won a reprieve from the law during their court challenge, but freelance journalists did not. Meanwhile, gig workers have filed a class-action lawsuit seeking retroactive pay, overtime and benefits. Gig companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash are mounting an expensive campaign in the November election to exempt themselves.

Legalize marijuana

What they’re proposing: Most of the candidates want to make recreational as well as medical marijuana legal nationwide, though a few take the more moderate position of wanting to give states the power to decide.

What California is doing: California is one of 11 states that have sanctioned cannabis. Golden State voters made medical marijuana legal in 1996 and approved recreational use in 2016. The law allows adults age 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, and grow as many as six plants for personal use. The law also downgraded penalties for nearly every crime involving marijuana, allowing people with past convictions to petition the court to be resentenced or cleared.

How’s it going here? Creation of a legal marketplace has proved rocky. The black market remains huge—roughly three-quarters of California weed still is being sold illegally. Most cities in the state have banned dispensaries, setting off a legal battle over how much local control the state law provides. Tax revenues from legal sales are coming in below expectations, and producers are pushing back against the state’s move to increase tax rates. Marijuana remains an all-cash enterprise because federal law prevents cannabis businesses from using banks. In the first year after legalization, only 10% of eligible people took steps to have their prior cannabis crimes downgraded or cleared.