Pride and politics

This is a tale of rumor and suspicion, paranoia and conspiracy. It’s about the Senate and the Assembly, the governor and the Democrats and the fight for the media spotlight on the state’s sexiest issue. It is, in short, a story of California politics.

On Thursday afternoon, long after most Assemblymembers had gone home for the weekend, two last bills were jammed through an Assembly committee to meet a key legislative deadline. The bills needed an 11th-hour extraordinary committee hearing called by Speaker Fabian Nunez, and some considerable arm twisting from the legislative leadership in both houses.

But the tale of Sen. Christine Kehoe’s bills, SB 140 and SB 210, is also a parable about the relations between the houses, divisions among legislative Democrats, egos inside the Capitol and the politics of global warming.

The controversy around the bills is anchored in policy. Both bills seek to give guidance to the Air Resources Board in implementing AB 32. But with the recent controversy over Gov. Schwarzenegger’s firing of the Chairman of the state Air Resources Board, and subsequent Assembly hearing into the dismissal, the politics of global warming is increasing the urgency to bring these bills to the governor’s desk.

Even before this year’s legislative session began, there was concern about the sea of global warming bills that were going to be introduced. In the wake of Schwarzenegger’s signing of Nunez’s AB 32 last year, and the international media attention that followed, global warming had become a fast-track to the media spotlight.

But it also presented a dilemma for both legislative leaders, especially Nunez. Not only did Nunez want to secure and maintain his role as a global warming champion, he needed to find a way to restrain the flood of legislation of global warming that was sure to be swimming through the Legislature. The Assembly’s record-size freshman class made it even more likely that new members, hungry to break through, would turn to environmental legislation.

“The Speaker said from the get-go this year that we should let the dust
settle from AB 32 and let it work,” said Nunez spokesman Steven Maviglio. “That applied both to legislative proposals and to the governor.”

The speaker has his own bill, AB 118, which was introduced as a work in progress. But given Nunez’s penchant for putting his name on high-profile legislation, there was concern in both houses that other greenhouse gas bills would be killed, and then picked over for ideas to be placed into Nunez’s bill.

Some of this conspiratorial thinking comes from Senate Democrats. Though nobody spoke on the record, many legislators and staff in the Senate who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that there was some concern about the fate of Senate greenhouse gas bills in the Assembly.

So when three greenhouse gas bills, authored by Kehoe, all died during the June 2 hearing of the Assembly Transportation Committee, the muttering began. The bills had been deemed “caucus priority bills” by Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, Nunez’s legislative counterpart and sometimes rival. Some in the Senate were blaming Nunez directly for their defeat.

There are 14 members of the Assembly Transportation Committee – nine Democrats and five Republicans. Eight votes are needed to pass legislation out of the committee, leaving little margin for error for Democrats. This is especially true because one Democrat, Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Tracy, is seen as business friendly on many issues, including environmental issues.

So when Jose Solorio refused to vote for Kehoe’s bills on June 2, they all died in the Transportation committee.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” said Kehoe of the June 2 vote. “We had been talking to members for several weeks. We knew that there were certain members who were having problems with the bills. Those members were hearing from the truckers and the car dealers and [Western States Petroleum Assocation],” who are all opposed to the bills.

But that week, the politics of global warming grabbed national headlines. Schwarzenegger fired Robert Sawyer, the chairman of the ARB, and another board member, Catherine Witherspoon, resigned soon afterward. Nunez said the administration was obstructing implementation of AB 32, and summoned top Schwarznegger aides to testify at an Assembly hearing.

Solorio said the subsequent shakeup at the ARB changed the political environment for the bills. “It highlighted the importance that we needed to be very aggressive in our decision making,” he said.

But during that time, there was also some serious arm-twisting going on. While the speaker was accusing the administration of hypocrisy on global warming, he could not afford to have these bills die in his house.

Kehoe turned to her leader, Perata, for help.

“I appealed to Sen. Perata for assistance with the Assembly and I think he talked to the speaker and the speaker talked to the members,” said Kehoe. “[The bill opponents] were hearing it from a lot of different angles.”

Sources in Perata’s office confirm the two leaders had a direct discussion about Kehoe’s bills. While the speaker moved to secure passage of the bills to help keep the peace between the houses, the Speaker’s aggressive stance against the governor over the shakeup at the ARB also helped Kehoe’s cause.

“I don’t think there’s a direct connection with what happened to [former chairman Robert] Sawyer over at CARB and what happened to the bills. But in general, the Legislature is realizing it has a strong role to play in implementing AB 32.”

Kehoe did say the dust-up over the ARB certainly “didn’t hurt” her cause.

Clearly, something had changed. By the time Assembly Transportation met on June 9, Solorio had changed his vote, and the bills were passed out of the committee.

“The author took some amendments to both bills that addressed my concerns,” Solorio said, adding that there was some “aggressive lobbying” by supporters of the bill. But the freshman lawmaker also seemed to relish his role as the deciding vote.

“Being a swing vote puts you in an influential position to suggest changes to authors. They’re more amenable to your ideas when you’re the deciding vote,” he said.

But there was a problem. The bills were double referred to Transportation and Natural Resources. Assembly Natural Resources met on Monday, the same day as Transportation. There was no committee meeting scheduled before the June 13 deadline for Senate bills to clear policy committee.

As late as Wednesday afternoon, Kehoe’s staff, along with the staff of committee chairwoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, was scrambling to get a meeting with senior members of Nunez’s staff. They would need a rule waiver, agreed to by the speaker, on the Assembly floor Thursday to hold a special meeting of Assembly Natural Resources.

Nunez agreed to the waiver, and on Thursday, after the Assembly had adjourned for the week, Assembly Natural Resources met in a small room on the top floor of the Capitol. On the agenda were two bills – Kehoe’s SB 140 and SB 210.

But the bills both had new amendments, and Republicans on the committee complained that there was no time to review the changes before the vote.

During the committee process, Hancock said, “We agree that these bills are a work in progress.” Even though this was the last stop for policy debate before the Assembly floor, Hancock recommended passing both bills.

Republicans on the committee objected strongly. “I received these amendments 45 minutes before the hearing,” said vice-chair Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield. “For the other bill, I didn’t see the amendments until I got to committee.”

Both bills were passed on a party-line 6-3 vote. They will be heard in Assembly Aprropriations next month.

Assemblyman Rick Keene, R-Chico, who also sits on the Natural Resources committee, couldn’t understand the urgency for moving the bills. Since this is the first year in the legislative
session, the measures could have easily been made into “two-year” bills to have the policy details hammered out.

“It seems like its being awfully rushed,” he said. “Unfortunately, around here, it’s a ‘ready, fire, aim’ thing.”

Privately, Republicans suggested Democrats were simply trying to embarrass Gov. Schwarzenegger by putting bills on his desk dealing with his trademark issue that he would be forced to veto.

The administration wouldn’t go that far, but did take note of the wrangling over the bills. “It looks like there is a growing amount of politicization around global warming,” said Schwarzenegger communications director Adam Mendelsohn. “That’s problematic. California is leading the nation on this issue. If we screw it up over politics, it will set the cause back for a very long time.”

“We’ve never tried to jam the governor on global warming, but we do want him to follow the law as it was written,” said Maviglio.

Kehoe said her bills have nothing to do with “jamming” the governor. They’re simply designed to provide a roadmap to the Air Resources Board as the deadlines in AB 32 approach.

“As the members become more aware of how much California has to do to meet our AB 32 deadlines, I think we’re going to see members looking at how to get these bills passed,” she said.

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