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How did a shoplifting bill get through California’s liberal Assembly, which most Democrats opposed?

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Assemblymember Ash Kalra did something extraordinary last week.

He was the only lawmaker to vote “no” on a controversial piece of legislation, while nearly half of the 80 members in the state Assembly — and a majority of Democrats — did not vote.

The bill, which would make it easier to arrest shoplifters, is a recent example of a pattern CalMatters revealed in April of lawmakers dodging votes to avoid offending the bill’s supporters or to eliminate their opposition on controversial issues .

Assembly Bill 1990 passed the Assembly 44-1 last week, with 35 lawmakers not voting, including 32 of 62 Democrats and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas. Some of those who did not vote had an excused absence, but the Legislature’s online data does not distinguish between absentee, abstention or not voting.

The bill would allow police to make a warrantless arrest for shoplifting, even if they did not witness the crime. Los Angeles Assemblywoman Wendy Carillo, who co-wrote the bill with five Democratic and two Republican co-authors, said it is “a response to the alarming escalation of organized retail thefts,” which has become a hot-button political issue.

But progressive Democrats, wary of rising incarcerations for minor crimes, were uncomfortable with the bill.

“Let’s be clear: AB 1990 will not stop shoplifting,” Inglewood Assemblywoman Tina McKinnor, a Democrat, told her colleagues. “AB 1990 will increase the unnecessary harassment, detention, arrest, and mass incarceration of Black and Brown Californians.”

She concluded her speech by saying, “I ask all of you to please vote ‘no’ on AB 1990.”

However, McKinnor did not vote on the bill.

Her office did not respond to CalMatters’ request for an explanation as to why she did not vote despite her clear opposition.

Kalra of San Jose also did not respond to a request from CalMatters to explain why he cast the lone “no” vote.

But Kalra has been a champion of progressive causes for years. He is a former deputy public defender and former chairman of the Legislature’s Progressive Caucus. He has advocated for legislation to end systemic racism in the justice system.

For a while, it appeared Kalra would not be the only Democratic “no” vote on AB 1990.

Fellow Democratic Assembly member Rick Chavez Zbur of Los Angeles also voted no, according to a video of the roll call vote captured by CalMatters’ Digital Democracy database.

But Zbur, chairman of the Assembly Democratic Caucus, changed his vote after the bill passed so he would be formally listed as not eligible to vote. In the General Assembly, members can change their vote on a bill after a hearing has ended, as long as it does not change the final outcome.

Asked to explain why he changed his vote, his spokesperson, Vienna Montague, said in an email that Zbur “has no comment at this time.”

While AB 1990 survived to advance to the Senate despite so many lawmakers not voting, other bills have not fared as well.

Last year, at least 15 bills died due to lack of votes, rather than lawmakers voting “no” on them. So far, the Digital Democracy database indicates that at least 17 bills have died this year because lawmakers refused to vote.

Meanwhile, Senate and Assembly leaders have repeatedly declined to answer CalMatters’ questions about whether the Legislature’s voting rules should change.

Politicians may think that not voting will benefit their political careers in the long run because they think it will be harder for someone to use a controversial “no” vote against them in a campaign ad, says Thad Kousser, a former California legislative staffer. now a professor of political science at UC San Diego. But he says that is shortsighted. He said any smart political operative could just as easily say in an ad that he “did not support this bill.”

Kousser said if lawmakers really have strong feelings against a bill, they should vote “no.”

“Politicians’ political interests are probably best served by taking a position that best suits their values ​​and explaining that to voters,” Kousser said.

Not voting, he said, is “just another way of saying, ‘I didn’t represent you on this bill.’ ”

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