Dust-up over Verizon bill irks some Dems

Over the last two months, Sen. Alex Padilla, D Los Angeles, guided  a controversial bill through the Senate committee process, with some help from Republicans and moderate Democrats. But Senate leader Don Perata intervened, citing a breech in senatorial decorum, and exiled the bill to legislative purgatory.

The story of SB 1389 ultimately shows the power the Pro Tem has over the Senate. It is also a story about Padilla, a former president of the Los Angeles City Council and Sacramento freshman, who was tagged as a rising star even before he took office. The bill’s Senate journey also raises issues of what some Senate observers say is an evolving set of rules of etiquette in the post term-limits era.

Senate sources say Perata killed the bill because its passage violated a fundamental rule of the Senate – defer to the committee chairmen. Padilla says he was in constant communication with the heads of both committees that heard the bill – Senate Energy Chairwoman Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, and Appropriations Chairman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch – and that any breach of etiquette was accidental.

“There wasn’t a step during the process at any point where I wasn’t in full communication with my colleagues, especially the chairs of the two committees as well as the pro tem’s office,” Padilla said.

The bill itself was sponsored by Verizon, an effort to reduce the Public Utilities Commission’s power over telephone-company mergers.

The bill was first heard in the Senate Energy, Utilities and Commerce Committee on April 15. The bill was opposed by the committee chairwoman, Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego.

Padilla had conversations with Kehoe before the bill was heard in committee. Kehoe told Padilla that she was opposed to the bill, but invited him to take the bill up before the panel.

“I did not ask Sen. Padilla not to present the bill,” Kehoe said. “He has a right to have the bill heard. Our rules don’t allow chairmen to not set a bill” for hearing.

When it came time to vote, Padilla received five of the committee’s nine votes, enough for passage. Joining Padilla in voting in favor of the bill was Democrat Ron Calderon, D-Whittier, and the committee’s three Republicans – Dave Cox, R-Elk Grove, Jim Battin, R-La Quinta and Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga.

Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, did not vote on the measure.

It is not terribly unusual for a chairman of a policy committee to lose on a vote. On many Senate’s committees, the personal politics of the chairperson are not necessarily in sync with a majority of the committee’s members. On the Senate Energy Committee, four of the committee’s Democrats could be considered reliable liberals or progressives. The committee has three Republicans, and moderate Democrat Correa on the committee. The final seat on the panel belongs to Padilla.

“I voted no, and I also expressed my disappointment on the policy matters to the pro tem,” said Kehoe. “I didn’t think it was good policy.”

After clearing Senate Energy, the bill was set for a hearing in the Appropriations committee. Among the committee staff, there was a vigorous internal debate on whether or not the bill was a candidate for the suspense file. The suspense file is used for any bill that has a cost of $150,000 or more to the state. Perata has lowered that dollar threshold to $50,000.

But the suspense file is also a convenient way for the Appropriations chairman to kill bills without getting any fingerprints on them. It is a place where the Senate leadership moves many bills it wants killed, and a motion to move a bill to suspense is often seen as a death sentence for legislation, ordered by the chairman or Pro Tem.

Padilla wanted to avoid having his bill moved to the suspense file. But he was also mindful of the authority of the Appropriations chairman, and had several conversations with Torlakson about the bill.

Torlakson was undecided about the measure. Technically speaking, the Appropriations committee is not supposed to consider testimony about the policy portions of a bill. The decisions are technically made on the fiscal aspects of the bill only.

The reality is, under most committee chairmen, that is not true. Appropriations Committee is used as a leverage point to kill all kinds of bills, whether or not it is for fiscal reasons.

Padilla took the measure up on May 19 in Senate Appropriations. During the course of the debate, it became clear that Torlakson was opposed to the bill, and supported moving it to the suspense file. A vote was taken to move the bill to suspense, and that motion failed. Then a motion to move the bill to the Senate floor was made by Cox. The bill got out with nine votes – including four from Democrats.

The panel’s three Latino members — Sens. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, Dean Florez, D-Shafter, and Oropeza voted in favor of the bill, as did Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.

News of the bill’s passage quickly reached the pro tem’s office, and Perata had the bill refered back to the Rules Committee, where it will die a quiet death.

Kehoe and Torlakson reportedly both wanted the bill dead. Informal rules in the Senate dictate that any member can have a bill called into Rules Committee for any reason. Kehoe said she did not ask for the referral. It was unclear whether Torlakson asked Perata to move the bill back to Rules, or whether the pro tem made the decision on his own.

Sen. Jim Battin, R-La Quinta, who voted in favor of the bill, bemoaned the unspoken rules of the Senate. “We don’t have a system of government where committee chairmen are kings,” said Battin. “If a member has the votes, he or she should be allowed to take up their bill.”

Padilla said he understands and respects the mores of the house, and tried to be sensitive to those while advocating for a policy proposal he believed in. “I know that often times, [Democratic] bills move through the Senate with little or no opposition. This bill seemed to be an exception to that, and I tried to handle the situation in as respectful and collegial a way as possible.”

Senate sources say the bill is likely dead for the year, but that decision ultimately rests with Perata.

But Padilla said whether or not the bill is revived this year, the issue is one he wants to keep discussing.

“This bill may or may not be dead for the year, but I do intent to revisit this subject matter even if it has to be next year,” he said.”

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