Crunch time: Deals loom as clock ticks

You name it, it’s on the table

The final weeks of the 2013 legislative session begin Monday.

May God have mercy.

Those five weeks will still be just as frenetic as always despite the back-patting by Gov. Jerry Brown and Democrats in the Legislature about all their “major” accomplishments connected with the June, on-time passage and signing of the state’s $145 billion budget.

That was then. This is the Now of 14-hour workdays crammed with a flurry of rushed hearings, slapdash amendments and secretly hatched skullduggery.

Rumors swirl among the lobbying corps of possible last minute deals and power plays – from legalizing Internet poker to bumping up the tax on a pack of cigarettes from 87 cents to rewriting a multibillion-dollar water bond for the 2014 ballot to changing the limits on awards in medical malpractice cases. Lurking in the background is a major push from Gov. Brown to change Proposition 65, the 1986 voter-approved law intended to protect the public from harmful chemicals.

This time of the legislative year has always been crazed and it always will be – right up until lawmakers go home by midnight on Sept. 13.

No one wants to compromise until they must. And the activity is driven more by the agendas of interest groups than the burnishing of legislative or gubernatorial records.

That said, lawmakers will do what they’ve done since 1850 – strive, wheedle and cajole – to win approval for as many pieces of their legislation as possible.

Legislators tend to feel the measures they author should be the state’s top priority, a condition more pronounced in a 120-person body where one-third of its members are in their first year as a state lawmaker.

Approval in June of an overhaul of the way the state doles out billions to public schools is swell but environmentalists are more interested in other things.

Like potential changes, good and ill, to the California Environmental Quality Act and restricting the ability of oil companies to use “fracking” – shattering shale through the injection of highly pressurized water to push out the natural gas.

Business interests support the sales tax exemption for purchases of manufacturing equipment and the research and development tax credit for biotech entrepreneurs Brown conferred when he signed legislation late in June to eliminate enterprise zones whose demise unions strongly supported.

But business groups like the California Chamber of Commerce are worried that manufacturing and biotech’s modest gains could be erased by sharp hits to their bottom line like a $2 increase in the minimum wage or a boost in the money employers must pay into the $10 billion-in-the-red unemployment insurance fund.

No doubt doctors believe the budget’s $125 million in one-time grants to increase capacity at mental health crisis centers around the state is laudable but their chief worry – other than a potential initiative war with trial lawyers over the size of damages in malpractice cases – is three bills expanding the medical care that could be provided by pharmacists, optometrists and nurse practitioners.

Labor has their issues. As do nearly every other interest group from cemetery operators to cable companies to cement plants.

Traditionally, in odd numbered years the end of the session starts in the middle of August and ends in mid-September.

Both houses still quit for the year on Sept. 13, but for the first time in 50 years, the Assembly decided to take its one-month summer recess at the beginning of July and return Aug. 5 for an extra week of policy committee hearings.

“The calendar we adopted offers everyone a chance to give more attention to their legislation. That benefits the policy process by allowing more time to consider all the issues before we head into the end-of-session crush,” said John Vigna, a spokesman for Pérez.

Lawmakers have been able to attend to their bills since Jan. 7, nearly seven months ago, when the Legislature first convened this year.

What role Brown will play in the final weeks is unknown. He said back in January his priorities were implementing the federal Affordable Care Act, boosting the state’s economic climate and reworking the state’s formula for distributing funds to public schools. In May, he announced his plans to alter Proposition 65.

To paraphrase Brown’s press secretary: Been there, done that.

“In the past month alone, the governor signed a balanced budget and legislation to implement health care reform, dramatically improve the state’s school funding system and strengthen California’s economic development programs — all priorities outlined in his 2013 state of the state address,” Evan Westrup, Brown’s press secretary told Capitol Weekly.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the Legislature to build on this progress, maintain our fiscal stability and move California forward.”

Most of the high profile issues are in the Assembly, visited upon them by the Senate.

Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat is carrying the only environmental quality act measure of consequence, SB 731, which would make changes in the California Environmental Quality Act.

Business groups want to see the measure impose more changes to speed the often time-consuming process of examining a project’s environmental impact.

Recently amended, the fracking bill – SB 4 by Sen. Fran Pavley, an Agoura Hills Democrat, is in the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.
Aiding the bill’s chances of passage, the principal co-author is freshman Assemblyman Adam Gray, a Central Valley Democrat.

Also on the Assembly’s to-do list are the three scope-of-practice measures the California Medical Association wants to kill, arguing it entrusts too much medical decision-making in persons who lack the training of doctors.

Sen. Ed Hernandez, a West Covina Democrat and an optometrist, is the author of the three bills – SB 491, SB 492 and SB 493. He argues they are needed because more people will have health coverage under the Affordable Care Act and there aren’t enough doctors to meet the demand.

All three bills await a hearing by the Assembly Business and Professions Committee.

Other bills of interest include:

–SB 2, by Democratic Sens. Ted Lieu of Long Beach and Leland Yee of San Francisco, which would require greater disclosure in political advertising, including TV spots and slate mailers.

–SB 520 by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, which seeks to expand the use of college-level online courses. The measure has drawn the wrath of powerful education-labor groups, including the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, although Gov. Brown has favored exploring the use of online courses.

–AB 10 by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, which contains the minimum wage increase and which after two years would link the level of the wage to the cost of living. The buzz in the Capitol is that the chances are even that this could wind up as a two-year bill.

–The online gaming bill, SB 51 by Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, is still alive and kicking, but the question is whether it is moving. It’s been largely dormant while tribal interests and the gaming industry negotiated the issues, and if there is a newer version of the bill, it has yet to be heard in a major policy forum. But if a deal is reached, it is likely to go to floors in the final hours of the session.

–An array of firearms-linked bills in the so-called LIFE package (Lifesaving Intelligent Firearms Enforcement), and one of them, SB 140 by Sens. Steinberg and Mark Leno, already has been signed into law to fund a program to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Other measures would bar high-capacity magazines (SB 396), outlaw the sale of semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines (SB374), and bar shotguns with a rifled bore and revolving cylinder (SB 567).

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