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Toil and trouble: The Capitol seethes as the deadline looms

Everybody expected it and nobody was disappointed: The biggest bills of the year are emerging, seemingly out of thin air it seems at times, amid hasty rewrites, marathon negotiating sessions and skirmishes between lobbyists and the interest groups that employ them.

The classic Capitol end-of-session brew is a high-stakes blend of confusion, rumor, policy-making, drivel and knives in the back. The government may be mired in dysfunction, but the politics of battle is doing just fine, thank you. Welcome to the California Capitol, August 2010.

Of the thousands of bills introduced last year, only a few hundred ultimately will become law and most of those will be relatively minor. As the session draws to a close, attention is focused on perhaps two dozen major bills dealing with such diverse topics as local government bankruptcy, convenience stores, laid-off teachers, health care, horseracing, insurance rates and power plants.

A bill with a potential far-reaching impact on the horse-racing industry is AB 2414 by Assembly Speaker John Perez, which, among other things, would allow so-called “exchange betting” at California tracks – betting that until now is only allowed in Australia and the United Kingdom. The bill has become the focus of an intense political fight.
Another major measure, the self-service checkout bill, AB 1050 by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-Southgate, is on the hit list of  moderate Democrats in the Senate, who aren’t buying the sales pitch from the author.

De La Torre says his bill to prohibit alcohol sales from automated check-out counters in supermarkets is a common-sense measure aimed at keeping kids away from alcohol. The grocery chain Fresh and Easy says the bill is targeted specifically at them. Fresh and Easy does not have a unionized workforce and relies heavily on automated checkout. Advocates for the company say the bill is aimed at forcing them into labor negotiations with their workers.

Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, a candidate for state insurance commissioner, has AB 2578, which would require health plans to receive approval from state regulators before hiking health insurance rates. It would also limit health-insurance hikes to one per year. Not surprisingly, the effort is opposed by health plans while supported by consumer groups. Of course Jones is hoping to be in charge of the California Department of Insurance, the regulator for individual health-care policies in California.

Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, is carrying SB 1285, which involves teacher layoffs.

It’s no secret that Steinberg and the powerful California Teachers Association don’t always see eye to eye. We could reprise the stories of mailers sent to Steinberg’s constituents, consultants working against Steinberg-backed candidates. But we know you’re not interested in any of that stuff.

But another big source of friction between the union and Senate leader is SB 1285, which alters the current seniority system for teacher layoffs. Steinberg says the current system hurts low-income schools disproportionately, since they are often the schools that have low-seniority teachers. Steinberg’s bill would cap layoffs at poor schools so they are no higher than the district-wide average for any particular school district.

Meanwhile, Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose, has SB 900 and Assembly Speaker John Perez has AB 1602, which both deal with federal health care implementation.

These two bills would begin California’s implementation of the new federal health-care bill signed by President Obama earlier this year. Many health-insurance companies, including Anthem Wellpoint are opposed to the bill and say the state is rushing into something that doesn’t have to be done for another couple of years. Gov. Schwarzenegger has vetoed many bills opposed by health plans in the past, but to even get to his desk, these measures first must clear the Senate floor.

One of the most controversial bills of the year is AB 155 by Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Norwalk, which would require local governments to obtain approval from the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission before they can file for bankruptcy. The bill is supported by a host of labor groups, who say the bill is a needed protection against cities or counties who will opt to declare bankruptcy to get out of contract agreements with their employees.

The measure is opposed by the California League of Cities, the California State Association of Counties and the California Chamber of Commerce.

Folded into the end-of-session frenzy are four major environmental bills that have become the targets of full-press lobbying efforts. The measures, the focus of marathon negotiations and carrying financial impacts of billions of dollars, were being rewritten – then rewritten again – during the week as Tuesday’s adjournment loomed.

Perhaps the most important bill of the year in terms of its long-range potential impacts is SB 722 by Sen. Joe Simitian D-Palo, which deals with renewable energy.

The bill requires utilities to get 33 percent of their power from renewable sources – solar, wind and thermal energy – by 2020. Current law requires 20 percent. If Simitian’s proposal to expand what is known as the Renewable Portfolio Standard ultimately is approved, it would rank in importance with AB 32, the state’s anti-greenhouse gas emissions statute, and it likely would serve as a national model.

But the negotiations are difficult. Gov. Schwarzenegger favors the 33 percent level, but there is a dispute over how much power should be obtained from out-of-state sources as opposed to in-state sources. There also are differences over whether new renewable energy facilities should receive environmental exemptions. Capitol sources say there are enough votes in both houses to get the bill to the governor’s desk, but it was uncertain whether he would sign it. Last year, the governor vetoed an earlier RPS bill.

Assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Pomona, is carrying AB 1581, which would exempt from California’s Enviornmental Quality Act the remodeling and alterations of so-called big-box retail stores. The goal of the bill is to provide economic incentives to retail businesses, but the measure sparked opposition from environmentalists, who do not want to see exemptions to CEQA.

Another major environment-related bill is Assemblywoman Julia Brownley’s AB 1998, which would ban plastic bags from grocery stores, so-called “superstores” and mini-marts. Stores could continue to provide paper bags, but these bags would have to be made from 40 percent recycled “post consumer” material – material that has been used at least once in the marketplace. Shoppers who opt to use the paper bags would be charged a minimum, 5-cent fee per bag. Stores would be prevented from handing out free paper bags. If it is approved, the law would take effect in January 2012.

Environmentalists favor the measure, while the plastic bag industry is opposed to the bill and some store owners fear a potential loss of business. The bill, approved in the Assembly, was in the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday awaiting amendments and assignment to a policy committee.

Yet another environment-linked bill with a multibillion-dollar impact is AB 1552 by Assemblyman Steve Bradford, D-Gardena, which would ease newly approved existing rules governing the way that coastal power plants use ocean water to cool their engines. The bill is backed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and would push back until 2031 a timetable on requiring changes in the plants’ cooling operations.

In May, the state Water Quality Control Board approved regulations requiring the new rules to go into effect at three DWP plant
s between 2015 and 2020. The DWP estimates the regulations could cost some $2.2 billion to fully put into effect, and sought the Bradford bill as an option.

Meanwhile, Charles Hoppin, the chair of the water board who played a significant role in the new regulations, awaits confirmation on the Senate floor.

Contact Anthony York and
John Howard at news@capitolweekly.net

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