Late amends leave advocates punched in the gut

They thought they’d won.

Supporters of AB 472, a Good Samaritan bill designed to protect those seeking medical help for people who’ve overdosed on illegal drugs, had seen their legislation get out of the Assembly and through the all-important Senate Public Safety Committee.

On Aug. 31, activists from throughout northern California gathered in front of the Capitol for International Overdose Awareness Day. They intended to present the governor with letters in support of the bill, authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco.

The bill would have provided limited criminal immunity from drug and paraphernalia possession to someone witnessing or experiencing a drug overdose seeking medical assistance. California has the largest number of overdose deaths in the country. Recreational drugs — in particular, prescription painkillers like Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet—kill more Californians than HIV/AIDS.

Advocates say this limited immunity is key to saving lives, and that fear of prosecution is the most common reason for delaying seeking help. A similar Ammiano bill had been vetoed last year by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. AB 472 had dozens of groups lined up behind it, with a single law-enforcement organization, the Sheriffs Association, in opposition. Passage in the full Senate looked very likely.

“What we understood is that it cleared both houses and Brown was going to sign it,” said Hillary Moyle with the Sacramento chapter of Grief Recovery after a Substance Passing (GRASP). “There wasn’t any fiscal impact. It was well-written.”

But two days after a rally they’d hoped would be a kind of victory lap, their bill had died — even though AB 472 as a vehicle was alive and well. With a mere week left in the legislative year, the bill now addressed yacht racing. Specifically, it authorizes revenue generated in San Francisco’s America’s Cup venues and Treasure Island to be used toward the construction of maritime facilities at Pier 27, and other local infrastructure projects.

“Everybody’s frustrated,” said Moyle.

Ammiano’s office said that GRASP were not the official sponsors of the bill and hadn’t been that involved. They also said the bill’s prospects were iffy, both in getting to the governor’s desk and getting signed once it got there, and that the decision to gut-and-amend AB 472 was made after they’d decided to stop pushing the original legislation.

The end of every legislative year is marked by numerous gut-and-amends, a process by which a bill that has been moving along all year as one thing get suddenly transformed into something completely different. But in many cases, the bills being changed were placeholders all along, with just basic language and little action around them. And often what they change into is various technical clean-up measures.

But this year seems notable for the amount of high-profile legislation coming on late via the gut-and-amend process.

For instance, one of the most-talked about late-session bills is SB 292 by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles. As originally introduced back in February, it addressed transferring credits from community colleges to other institutions.

But it suddenly became quite a different transfer bill: As of Sept. 2, it became “a bill to facilitate the transfer of the San Diego Chargers to Los Angeles,” as Community College League CEO Scott Lay, who had been closely tracking the bill, wrote in his email blog, The Nooner.

Padilla turned SB 292 into legislation that would alter the California Environmental Quality Act to expedite the approval of a proposed NFL stadium for downtown Los Angeles. That’s a far cry from the original bill, which was  written to require community colleges to accept credits earned at other community colleges toward an associate degree for transfer.

Padilla’s SB 292 wasn’t exactly a placeholder, having made it out of the Senate and through two Assembly committees. But it was more of a technical cleanup bill for Padilla’s SB 1440, a college credit transfer bill from last year, and its loss didn’t appear to upset anyone the way some other guts have.

According to Padilla’s staff, SB 292 became available when the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s office told them the cleanups might not be needed and that they will reintroduce legislation next year if they decide it’s needed.

Lay, meanwhile, wasn’t that shocked by the quick gut-and-amend.

 “As much as we complain about them, the place would be boring if it always played by the rules. However, the vote on SB 202 (Hancock) has left a bitter taste in the mouths of a lot of legislators and staff on both sides of the aisle.”

That is the measure that would reclassify June primaries so they’re no longer considered “statewide elections.” The real goal, of course, it to move all initiative measures onto the November ballot.

Its main purpose appears to blunt Republicans’ power to affect state policy through the initiative process, where they’ve had more success in recent years than in the Legislature, where they hover at around 35 percent of the seats. Republican voters tend to turn out a higher percentage of their voters than Democrats in the June elections. Labor unions in particular have been supportive of the idea.

But Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Burbank — who has been a vocal proponent of reforming the initiative process —found himself caught in a bind. His ACA 4, which would establish a long-sought “rainy day fund” for the state, would get bumped from next June to November 2014. In other words, if you’re now 15 years old, you’ll be eligible to vote by the time ACA 4 gets in front of voters. The measure was part of the 2009-10 budget deal, and the change has left some Republicans feeling like they’ve gotten hit with a bait-and-switch.
Many of the top gut-and-amends seem to have involved bills that originally dealt with education  — such as SB 292. Another example is SB 922, originally carried by Sen. Gloria Negrete-McLeod, D-Chino. Between February and Sept. 2, this was a bill about screening school kids for tuberculosis.

Then it found a new calling: authorizing public entities to enter into public labor agreements, or PLAs. This is something labor groups have long sought — basically laying out some rules for cities and local governments for these types of agreements.

It also bars state funds from going to public works projects of charter cities that pass blanket bans on using PLAs. The bill came in response to a coordinated campaign by non-union contractors, which has passed PLA bans in several California cities in the last few months.

Republicans have long opposed any mandate on PLAs, saying these agreements sharply drive up construction costs for public projects. But in less than a week, the bill was heading to the governor’s desk.

Similarly, SB 126 by Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, hadn’t changed since January. It got out of both houses as a bill setting guidelines for the California Transportation Commission, but it found new life as a labor bill sought by the United Farm Workers and others. Brown vetoed a similar bill, SB 104, in June.
The new bill contains many of the changes they’d been seeking, including expedited elections, mediation and recourse for workers who allege they were fired during a union campaign as punishment. But it’s not a true “card check,” because it doesn’t enshrine majority-vote elections the way SB 104 did.    

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