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End-of-session notebook: Observations on deadlines, political power and clock-watching

As Capitol denizens recover from the tornado that was the end of the legislative session,  we are among those sorting through the rubble. These moments of stress and strife often bring out the worst in the political process – the proverbial sausage-making that conventional wisdom holds is better left unseen.

Decisions are made hastily in the hallways, bills become linked to completely unrelated policy proposals. Egos clash. Battles erupt between houses, between parties, between members of the same party running for the same Senate seat. Through it all, lobbyists mill about the Capitol halls, monitoring their legislation and making last-minute pleas to lawmakers and their staffs.

And all the while, the clock is ticking. As the hour gets late, and time grows short, things get really ugly.

What follows are a few observations about the Capitol, its culture and its leadership as we put a bow on the legislative session that was.

No 1: Being the boss just doesn’t mean what it used to. At the very least, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you get what you want.
Just look at the case of SB 399.

The bill, by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would have established a system for teenagers who are sentenced to life without parole to petition for their release. The issue was embraced by Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, who made a passionate plea for the bill in a closed-door meeting of his caucus.
The bill had been ‘speakerized’ – which means the speaker wanted it approved.

But on Monday night, the measure was stuck on the floor with just 36 votes. Many Democrats had voted against the bill with a handful of others abstaining – including Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, Manuel Pérez, D-Coachella, Joan Buchanan, D-San Ramon, Cathleen Galgiani, D-Tracy, Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, and Tony Mendoza, D-Los Angeles.

All five were needed to get the bill to the necessary 41 votes, and Pérez was determined to get there. As the session prepared to close, Pérez himself took the speaker’s gavel to preside as the vote was opened on the bill.

It stayed open for more than 45 minutes.

“All members vote who desire to vote,” Pérez said, the familiar mantra of the presiding officer. Then, he improvised. “All members vote who desire to leave.”
Buchanan voted against the bill. Others peeled off. The vote count dropped to 35, while Pérez, and the rest of the house, waited.

Finally, Chesbro,  Manuel Pérez and  De La Torre went up on the bill. Mendoza was still not voting, and was nowhere to be found.

With the roll open for more than half an hour, Pérez took the microphone. “For those of you wondering why we are still waiting, we are waiting for Mr. Mendoza to return and cast his vote … So we will continue to await Mr. Mendoza’s return.”

Mendoza says he had no idea anyone was looking for him and said his vote wouldn’t make a difference.

Three minutes after Pérez summoned him publicly, Mendoza put up his vote, bringing the count to 39 – still two votes shy of the 41 required for passage. Mendoza’s yes vote was up for three minutes before he went back to not-voting. Other members, including Manuel Pérez followed suit.

Pérez conceded defeat, closing the role, and handing the gavel back to Fiona Ma to adjourn the session for the evening.

It wasn’t much easier for Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). Steinberg pushed a measure, opposed by the California Teachers Association, that would change the current system of teacher seniority when it comes to layoffs.

Steinberg argued that layoffs disproportionately impact poorer schools under the current seniority system. Because poorer schools often have newer teachers, they are harder hit by teacher layoffs when they come.

Steinberg’s bill would have capped layoffs at the poorest schools to the district-wide average in any particular school district. The bill had fits and starts, with the teachers union fighting all the way.

In the closing hours of the session, Steinberg put the language from his bill into another measure, SB 691. But the measure died in the Assembly Appropriations committee.

No. 2 – The clock is not your friend – unless you’re a Republican

It’s not easy being a legislative Republican. Democratic majorities rule, and very few Republican bills find their way to the governor’s desk. But there are a few moments when Republicans have leverage.  Tuesday night was one of those moments.

Senate Republicans called a temporary halt to Senate debate Tuesday afternoon, slowing down the operation of the house as the legislature races against a key legislative deadline.

The call came from Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) to protest a procedural move made by Democrats on a proposal to ban plastic bags at grocery stores and many other retail outlets.

 It became clear watching Republicans in action Tuesday that they weren’t quite as eager as their Democratic counterparts to work their way through that stack of bills.

And why would they be? Most of the bills pending before the house—be it a ban on plastic bags or a change of rules for health-insurance providers—are authored by Democrats. The clock can now help Republicans do what their numbers in the Legislature don’t allow them to do—kill legislation they don’t like but are powerless to stop.

There is an important exception to the midnight deadline. The Legislature may actually pass bills after midnight tonight—but only bills that require the approval of two-thirds of the lawmakers of each house. That is to say any bills passed after midnight would need at least some Republican support.

By the end of the session, both floors felt like they were in the throes of filibusters. Sen. Jeff Denham gave a speech about juicy meat in a bag that elicited guffaws and chuckles from the back of the chambers, while Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster) made numerous procedural motions on a bill that was sure veto-bait anyhow. Over in the Assembly, Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) spoke as if he was a 45 record being played at 33 rpm.

In the end, there were numerous casualties, including a plan on renewable energy, local government bankruptcy and increased government disclosure of staff salaries.

No. 3 – Cramming doesn’t work
We are all deadline-driven to some extent. But lawmakers clearly misjudged how long it would take to work through this week’s bills. And until the final flurry, there was a kind of nonchalance in the Capitol, from both parties, that has marked this entire summer. True, there were not as many vital legislative proposals pending – the state’s fiscal woes have taken care of much of that. But the decision to hold a budget vote on the final  day to pass bills clearly led to the death of at least a handful of measures.

The budget vote was something that both sides agree could have happened weeks ago. In fact, members of both parties say the vote should have happened weeks ago, but blame the other side for holding up the vote.

No. 4 – Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Leader of the state Senate seems like a thankless, and some times impossible, job. And it’s only made harder with the absence of Assemblywomen Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach) and Pat Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa), both out with medical conditions. Those two reliable Democratic votes made it harder to get bills off the Senate floor, though Steinberg’s office says their votes would have made the difference in the final outcome of only a couple of
measures.

Throughout the night, a block of moderates including Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) and Rod Wright (D-Los Angeles) made their presence felt on bills ranging from health-insurance regulation to ammunition. It’s just going to be harder to exert power in that house next year after members like Ed Hernandez (D-El Monte) Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) and Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) join the Senate next year.


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