Big Battles to Watch In California Legislature's Final Month

The Assembly Daily File in the Assembly Chambers at the State Capitol in Sacramento. (Max Whittaker/KQED)

At most, there are only 20 days of official business left at the state Capitol. By the time it's over, huge policy and political fights will have been waged, some of which may set the stage for debates left for the voters to settle in 2016.

Legislators return on Monday to Sacramento for the final sprint to the end of this year's duties, the halfway mark of the two-year legislative session that began in January. Hundreds of bills are left to be debated, covering topics from  environmental policy to privacy rights and long-term funding for roads and highways.

Here are our top picks for the battles worth watching:

The Biggie: Climate Clash

California's reputation on the international stage as a leader on climate change regulations has been front and center in recent months, and legislators may be on the verge of doubling down on that effort. Most notable are two bills to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and separate legislation to cut the state's reliance on fossil fuels.

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The greenhouse gas bills (SB 32 and AB 1288) push beyond the state's 2006 landmark law, which seeks to shrink emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. AB 1288, by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), would extend the state's use of cap-and-trade as a tool to limit greenhouse gas emissions. SB 32, by state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), would ratchet down emission levels by mid-century to 80 percent below 1990 levels.

State Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León is the author of SB 350.
State Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León is the author of SB 350. (Max Whittaker/KQED)

Hard to believe, but those bills may spark debate that seems tepid compared to SB 350 by Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). This bill is an attempt to pull off the equivalent of a climate change hat trick: More renewable energy, more energy efficient buildings, and a 50 percent reduction in the use of petroleum by cars and trucks.

That last element -- a big downsizing of gasoline use -- is the one the oil industry has vowed to kill, with an aggressive PR campaign over the last few weeks and a list of business-leaning Democrats in the Assembly who they hope will lead the charge to weaken the Senate leader's bill.

Historically, a bill authored by a legislative leader can be hard to stop. And de León holds some powerful cards in his hand -- namely, the bills of assemblymembers that have made it to the Senate, bills he could amend or kill to get his way with SB 350.

This is the biggest of the final legislative battles. And keep your eye on Gov. Jerry Brown, who may play a key role behind the scenes on an issue which he seems to increasingly view as a big part of his legacy.

Money Talks: Health Care and Tobacco

Lawmakers will be working both on regular-session issues and, concurrently, on two special legislative sessions -- dealing with health care and transportation.

While Brown's call for a special health care session is mostly aimed at finding a way to fund Medi-Cal, it seems a new round of tobacco wars will be taking front and center in the debate as well.RS3292_NoSmokingSign

Several Democratic lawmakers have already introduced legislation as part of the special session that would define e-cigarettes as tobacco products and bring them under the state's existing anti-smoking laws.

Both Senate Bill xx5 by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Assembly Bill xx6 by Assemblymember Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) are essentially do-overs of Leno's SB 140, which was unceremoniously gutted in July by Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), chair of the lower house's powerful governmental organization committee. So it seems that legislation, combined with other bills, could set up an interesting battle in the Assembly, whose more moderate members have recently been loath to expand anti-tobacco laws.

(By the way, the "x" in the bill numbers refers to the fact that these were introduced in the special session.)

Also on the tobacco docket: Assembly Bill xx10 by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), which would allow counties to impose their own tobacco taxes; Senate Bill xx7 by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-San Gabriel Valley) and Assembly Bill xx8 by Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg), which would both raise the smoking age to 21;  Senate Bill xx6 by Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel), which would close some loopholes in the state's workplace smoking laws; and Senate Bill xx8 by Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge), which would expand tobacco-free programs to charter schools.

The health care session, of course, is actually aimed at finding a way to backfill $1.1 billion in funding for Medi-Cal that will dry up next June, when the federal government starts enforcing new rules around how the low-income health insurance is funded. Democrats and Republicans also want to increase reimbursement rates for doctors who serve Medi-Cal patients and to increase funding for developmental disability services; Democratic lawmakers are pushing, too for more funding for the state's In-Home Supportive Services program.

Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) has proposed a flat tax on all managed care organizations in the state of $7.88 per patient, per month. He said the tax would raise the $1.1 billion for Medi-Cal, as well as money for the other programs. Republicans say that tax is unnecessary, and they would like to see the state instead dedicate any new general fund revenues above and beyond 2015 budget levels to developmental disability services and Medi-Cal rates.

Transportation's Tax Troubles

The other big special session debate over the final month will be over new dollars for California's aging roads, highways and bridges. Getting consensus on the seriousness of the issue was the easy part; finding a way to pay for it -- given that most revenue remedies will require a supermajority, bipartisan vote of each house -- is the hard part.

How much money? An all-star coalition of local governments, business, and transportation groups says it needs to be at least $6 billion. Annually. That's a heavy lift in the political world.

Key debates will include how much to earmark for things like roads and bridges, and how much some urban legislators may demand for public transit; how many different fees or taxes can or should be raised, from gas taxes to vehicle registration fees; how much of the ever-growing pot of cash from cap-and-trade's auction of emission allowances should be tapped; and the idea of moving away from per gallon taxes and towards "road charging," where drivers pay based on how many miles they drive.

Crime ... and Accountability

Two controversial criminal justice bills will also be up for debate this month, both of them opposed by law enforcement.

Assembly Bill 953,  by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), is billed by supporters, including the ACLU, as the "Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015." It would mandate a system for law enforcement to collect information on each stop they make, data that would have to be reported to the attorney general each year. AB 953 would also expand the state's definition of profiling beyond race to include things such as gender, national origin, religion and sexual orientation. It's supported by a long list of civil rights groups and opposed by most of the state's large police organizations.

Police protests around the nation, including this one in San Francisco, helped spur AB953.
Police protests around the nation, including this one in San Francisco, helped spur AB953. (Mark Andrew Boyer / KQED)

Leno is again attempting to curb warrantless searches of phones, computers and other electronic devices with Senate Bill 178. It's his fourth run at the issue, which has repeatedly been embraced by lawmakers but vetoed by Brown in the face of law enforcement opposition.

The bill would require law enforcement to secure a court order before they compel service providers to give them personal communications, or before they search an electronic device. It has some exceptions for emergency situations. It's supported by tech companies, consumer organizations and civil liberties groups, but opposed by prosecutors, police and sheriffs.

Elections and Disclosure Laws

A handful of notable bills in the final month may make important changes in the conducting of elections and campaigns, starting as soon as next year's contest. The most talked about of these is AB 1461 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), requiring DMV and state elections officials to automatically register to vote those who are eligible.

Other bills that will be worth watching include a state-funded recount for razor-thin statewide candidate or ballot measure elections, and new donor disclosure rules on campaign mailers.

Speaking of disclosure: Keep an eye on AB 1200, the effort by Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park) to apply lobbying reports for those who seek government contracts -- an area, as we reported last week, that's virtually opaque when it comes to seeing who's influencing what.

Affordability Issues

Democrats are also attempting to change a handful of state laws that they argue will make life easier for working families and individuals.

Efforts to raise the minimum wage are also happening at the local level.
Efforts to raise the minimum wage are also happening at the local level. (Peter Jon Shuler/KQED)

Assembly Bill 908, by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) would expand paid family leave in California; Senate Bill 406, by Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) would also expand job protections for Californians that take paid family leave;  Jackson's Senate Bill 358 would strengthen California's gender pay protections; and Leno's Senate Bill 3 would raise the state's minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2017, with automatic future increases based on the rate of inflation -- the same kind of inflation "indexing" that's been opposed in previous incarnations by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Ripped From The Headlines?

And finally, there will be legislative debates that, even more than some of the bills mentioned above, are largely driven by the state or national news cycle.

Republicans are vowing to fight for more information on Planned Parenthood's use of state tax dollars, after the summertime controversy over a hidden video and accusations of selling fetal tissue for medical research. While GOP-dominant legislatures in other states are provoking a fight with the feds on the issue, a debate in the heavily Democratic statehouse in Sacramento would be mostly symbolic.

The summer's tragic headline of a San Francisco murder, allegedly carried out by an undocumented felon who was released from custody just days earlier, may also make its way to the Legislature. Republican state Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Murrieta) plans to introduce a bill to require that local law enforcement notify federal immigrations officials before releasing a convicted felon.

Less sensational, but also part of a national narrative, is SB 142 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) to ban drone aircraft within a 350-foot zone of privacy over private property. Jackson and other legislators also are calling for new laws regarding drones interfering with firefighting efforts.