Capitol: A graveyard for key bills at the 11th hour

The 2009-10 legislative session lurched painfully to a close this week, with bills dying as much by confusion as by design and with the most important measure of all – the state budget – left ignominiously in limbo.

 Bill numbers changed as if by magic, contents were hastily rewritten and hearings were held abruptly in crowded, lobbyist-filled hearing chambers. Occasionally, a member of the public even wandered in.

A slew of major environmental bills – including a new renewable energy program, a ban on plastic bags and changes in the way power plants cool themselves – were blocked.  So was an effort to change the horse racing wagering industry and an attempt to require local governments to ask the state’s permission before declaring bankruptcy. 

But it’s never over ‘till it’s over,’ and on Wednesday Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested that another round of negotiations and legislation on the key bills – especially the budget – was on the way.

“I will try to get them done before I leave office. I think we can do that,” the lame-duck governor told reporters at a Capitol news conference. “The other thing you should know is that when I finish this job, it does not mean that won’t continue to work on those issues.”

But if past is prologue, the outlook for a budget agreement soon is not good. The state has been without a spending plan for the 2010-11 fiscal year since July 1, and there is little indication – despite the governor’s positive assessment – that an agreement looms.

And as for the hundreds of bills that were recently shipped to the governor, he has a month to act on them – to sign, veto or let them become law without his signature. Here’s a quick rundown of the measures that we at Capitol Weekly saw as the session’s key bills.

SB 722, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.
For the second time, Simitian pushed legislation to require  California utilities to get a third of their power from renewable sources – such as wind and solar – and for the second time it was blocked. The first time, the bill got through the Legislature, but the governor vetoed it. In the latest effort, Simitian’s bill emerged from the Assembly at the 11th hour – literally – but the clock ticked down to midnight before it was put to a vote. His bill would have raised what is called the Renewable Portfolio Standard to 33 percent, from the current 20 percent. There also was language in the bill detailing how and from where the energy would be obtained – language that ultimately fueled disagreements.

AB 1934 by Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, D-San Diego
It’s been awhile since the Capitol has seen a real knock-down, drag-out gun battle. But it got one this year in the form of AB 1934, a bill which would ban the open carrying of firearms.

Open carry protestors have gotten folks in a tizzy some places recently by, for instance, walking into Starbucks and other retail establishments with guns in their holsters.  In the end, AB 1934 was a victim of GOP “run out the clock” efforts.And Saldana is termed out. But, like anything to do with gun law, the story won’t end there. Beyond the usual lawsuits, this one is may result in law enforcement agencies being sued to provide more concealed weapons permits—on the grounds that urban sheriffs are notoriously (unconstitutionally?) stingy with these licenses. There also may be some sort of First Amendment challenge coming as well.  

AB 1552, Assemblyman Steve Bradford, D-Gardena.
This bill arose in a classic gut-and-amend fashion so popular in the final days of a legislative session. Bradford, the chair of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, carried the bill at the behest of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the City of Los Angeles. The measure would have eased regulations that the state approved in May governing the intake of sea water by coastal power plants. DWP , which supplies about 40 percent of L.A.’s available power generation, said the bill would have cost it more than $2 billion over time. The bill would have required three power plants to have the new rules in place by 2019, while DWP wanted a longer phase-in time, until 2013. In the end, the heavily lobbied bill ran into fierce opposition led by environmentalists. The measure was dropped.

AB 1998, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica.
In yet another defeat for a major environmental bill, Brownley’s hard-fought attempt to ban plastic grocery bags had the support of the California Grocers Association and environmentalists such as the Sierra Club and the NRDC,  but it hit well-heeled opponents from the major retailers grocery stores such as Safeway and Sav-Mart. The bill would have banned plastic bags at most retailers. Backers of her bill said the “urban tumbleweed” of plastic bags has fouled ocean waters, coastal inlets and rivers. Her bill would have banned the bags, but allowed stores to charge customers roughly a nickel for paper bags; customers also could bring their own tote bags. But opponents said the costs would discourage trade and lead to job loss.

AB 2578, Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento.
Health insurance companies have caught a lot of bad press the last couple years. But when bills they don’t like actually get to the Legislature, they continue to demonstrate that they can turn them back. Such was the case with AB 2578 by Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento. Consumer groups loved this one, since it would have required insurers to get approval for rate increases from either the Department of Managed Health Care or the Department of Insurance, depending on which one they were regulated by under California’ patchwork regulatory system. This one became the Anthem Blue Cross bill. That company led the opposition—and also put forward controversial rate increases over the last several months that helped inspire it. But it also may have gotten caught up in the inter-house meat-grinder. One of Jones’ fellow Democrats, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, put forward SB 1163, which would require companies to justify their reasons for increases to subscribers, something consumer groups say was a far weaker and less desirable option. Leno’s bill has been credited by many with siphoning support away from AB 2578.

SB 1131 by Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello.

Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization initiative, could face a tough time at the polls this fall. But pot advocates did have a decent session — including the death of one bill that one would think they’d support.

That bill was SB 1131 by Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello. Working with former legislator Jerome Horton, now a member of the Board of Equalization, Calderon came up with a plan to license and tax medical marijuana dispensaries.

But California NORML, the state’s leading pro-legalization organization, immediately came out against the late-session gut-and-amend.  Group director Dale Gieringer said the bill did nothing to offer further legal protections to dispensaries, which are legal under state law but still face government pressure. He also countered the idea that there is a major problem with non-payment or underpayment by dispensaries on their taxes.

In the end, he got help from an unlikely source — GOP legislators, who killed this bill and numerous others with last-minute delaying tactics.
AB 2014 by Speaker John Perez,  SB 1072 by Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello.

Call it a game of whack-a-mare. All year, there has been wide agreement in the horse racing industry on a package of reforms. Changes in the with
holding and distribution of betting funds, as well as a plan to bring the prestigious Breeder’s Cup to California, moved along in the form of AB 2414 by Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles.

Then, on Aug. 20, new language was added to AB 2414 to authorize a type of betting called exchange wagering. This is an exotic form of betting that, some say, resembles the sort of shenanigans that brought down the financial markets. The house doesn’t issue odds, just brokers bets between players on, say, a horse finishing sixth. People could trade bets, make multi-race bets and so forth.

This type of betting has helped revive the moribund horse racing industries in the UK and Australia. And the bill’s major supporter is Betfair, a British company that provides technology to allow exchange wagering. Manga Entertainment, a major track owner, and competing technology company, YouBet, were among those opposed.

Then they managed to stall out AB 2414, Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, put similar language in SB 1072 on Aug. 30. In the end, both bills made it to the governor’s desk. We wonder what Betfair could tell us about the odds of that happening.

AB2199 by Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.
Sometimes there’s a bill that’s notable despite the fact that’s its passage was never in doubt. That would be the case for AB 2199, which only one legislator voted against — and he did it twice.

The bill, by Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, would strike a section from the state’s Welfare and Institutions Code stating that homosexuality is a mental illness which needs to be cured. From committees to floor votes, only Assemblyman Joel Anderson, R-La Mesa, voted against it. First, on the floor back in April, then again last week. It ultimately passed, 75-1 in the Assembly and 36-0 in the Senate. A few legislators abstained, some of them because they were absent. Anderson’s office did not reply to multiple requests for comment. But he has been a noted opponent of gay marriage and gay rights issues in the past. Back in March, we reported that he was the only sitting state legislator to appear in promotional videos for the conservative group, an effort to elect “traditional values” judges that would oppose gay marriage and abortion. In his video, Anderson urges people to join with the group to elect “men and women of high moral values, who will not legislate from the bench.” The votes prompted an uncharacteristically terse response from Lowenthal. “There is no way one can justify a no vote,” she said.

–Reporting by John Howard, Jennifer Chaussee, Malcolm Maclachlan and Anthony York.

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