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High noon for unbacked bills

The four weeks between January 26 and February 23 are one of the most stressful times of the year for Sacramento lobbyists. That’s the period between the Legislative Counsel deadline and the bill-submission deadline, a time when lobbyists troop from office to office, legislation in hand.

In fact, over half of the thousands of bills the Counsel’s 80 or so lawyers review each year do not originate with legislators–instead, they go looking for them.

“I’ve been in every legislative office in the Capitol,” lobbyist Matt Gray said last week.

Among other ideas, Gray has been pushing a measure that would confiscate any money minors make if they use a fake ID in order to appear in an adult video.

Gray, who is obviously not afraid to take on difficult causes, is also pushing a bill to allow bars to stay open until 4 a.m., using evidence that places that have such a law tend to have lower rates of drunk driving. While that might be a hot potato for many legislators, there are tons of other ideas that are also going begging.

In each case, they have gotten the legal review that would be required for them to become California law; often, Counsel’s lawyers take an idea that has merely been described and draft legislation.

What these bills don’t have is the gold-colored backing detailing which legislators have signed on as authors and co-authors. This piece of paper will physically follow the bill for it’s entire legislative life until it becomes law or not.

But “unbacked” bills that don’t get a sponsor by tomorrow will die. A lucky few ideas may resurface as spot bills or gut-and-amends. But for most, a failure to get backing will mean two more years on the sidelines.

Efforts to beat the pending deadline can lead supporters of a bill idea to go to some extreme measures. Animal-rights activist Eric Mills even bought an ad on Capitol Weekly’s Roundup Web site–reading, “Wanted: An author with heart”–to promote his bill idea. The coordinator for the Oakland-based group Action for Animals, Mills wants to expand the state penal code on treatment of animals to charreadas, a kind of Mexican-style rodeo.

Mills efforts also could be an example of how term limits have made the process more difficult, as groups need to find legislative allies more often. In a Capitol Weekly article last year, Mills called Assemblyman Paul Koretz “the best animal guy up there.” Koretz carried numerous animal-rights bills in his six years in the Assembly, but he termed out last year.

Last-second efforts can also create some strange political bedfellows–or try to, anyway. Freshman Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita, is a self-identified conservative. But he’s been meeting with environmentalists, labor and animal-rights activists.

Much of this is for him to get educated on their points of view, Smyth said, though he was intrigued by a bill idea from Environment California to limit the energy footprint of new homes. High electricity bills are a fact of life in Smyth’s Southern California desert district.

However, he said he opposes caps and would prefer a system of incentives for builders. Smyth was also knew several Democrats had likely already turned down the bill. Environement California has had a lot of success lately–they were key backer of AB 32 and had placed multiple bills with Democrats this years–but this idea would probably entail an all-out fight with the building industry.

“As a freshman Republican, I can’t imagine I was anyone’s first choice,” Smyth said. “I tend to look fairly critically at any bill ideas that come to me in the last week.”

Counsel’s workload rises and falls dramatically throughout the two-year session. Bill requests begin coming in by early December, soon after legislators are sworn in. By late January, many of the agency’s lawyers are working long hours every day in order to stay ahead. Work will slow down again briefly after this Friday’s deadline, but pick back up again from April to June as various policy and fiscal-committee deadlines kick in.

In case this sounds like a free-for-all, it actually takes a friend in the Legislature to get into the process at all. Each legislator designates one of more staffers who can introduce bills or request legal services from Counsel.
These staffers, in turn, can ask for Counsel to review or draft bills on behalf on some designated outside groups. Getting through the Counsel deadline is the prerequisite for a bill making it into the month-long matchmaking process.

Usually, this is done for groups on the same side of the political spectrum. The legislator is generally sympathetic to their cause, but not ready to give up one of their bill slots for that particular bill. Assembly members get 40 slots for a two-year session, while each senator gets 50.

This would seem to put the lobbyist sponsor of each unbacked bill at a disadvantage in that their most likely ally already has passed on the idea. But the biggest challenge is probably the sheer numbers of bills out there seeking a home.

In some cases, the subject matter may make the bill too hot to handle for most legislators. That was likely the case for the adult-industry bill that Gray was pushing on behalf of the Free Speech Coalition, and adult-industry trade group. The group’s executive director, Diane Duke, said that while they were hoping to make the idea a law, the unbacked bill is also an attempt to bring attention to how rarely age laws are broken on adult-movie sets.

“We don’t put a massive amount of bills forward,” Duke said. “We are constantly getting berated because of the assumption that we use youths in our productions.”

After a quarter-century lobbying in the Capitol, Randy Perry of Read & Associates said he has developed a standard game plan for most of his bills. First, you figure out the key committee or committees, then you approach the chairperson. If they don’t work out, go to members of the committees who are looking to have a bill to hang their hat on. Then you go to other legislators who might be sympathetic.

“When it gets down to the last couple days before the deadline, I start calling all my friends,” Perry said.

Not that he usually has a problem, Perry added. He does much of his work for Peace Officers Research Association of California. PORAC-backed bills provide a rare opportunity for legislators to score pro-labor and law-and-order points at the same time. In other words, they’re in the opposite position of the adult-industry lobby.

“Folks tend to want these bills,” Perry said, “even when they think they’re not going to pass.”

Afrack Vargas, a lobbyist for the California State Firefighters Association, echoed this sentiment, noting “the firefighters have lots of friends of both sides of the aisle.” There is some good news for those on the outside looking in, he noted, in the form of a reelected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. With the same chief executive returning, some of the big lobbies are declining to refight battles on bills he vetoed last session–leaving more open slots for other legislation.

“We’ve definitely scaled back our retirement and benefits legislation,” Vargas said.

UPDATE: Eric Mills got his sponsors, one hour before the bill deadline. Assemblymembers Audra Strickland, R-Moorpark, and Joe Coto, D-San Jose, will carry the charreadas bill as AB 1416.

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at malcolm.maclachlan@capitolweekly.net


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