This is Essential Politics, our daily look at California political and government news. Here's what we're watching right now:
- California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said Wednesday that he intends to open a satellite attorney general's office in Washington, D.C., as he prepares to fight the Trump administration.
- The results from California's latest cap-and-trade auction are in, and revenue from the sale of pollution credits was weak.
- A bill that would set up a state-funded legal aid system for immigrants will be amended by its author to allow those with criminal records to apply for assistance.
Former President George W. Bush on Wednesday pushed back at the notion that his recent remarks about the media were criticisms of President Trump.
“I’m asked the question, ‘Do I believe in free press?’ and the answer is absolutely, I believe in free press … because the press holds people to account,” he said. “Power is very addictive and it's corrosive if it becomes central to your life and therefore there needs to be an independent group of people who hold you to account. And so I answered that question and of course the headlines were, ‘Bush criticizes Trump.’ And so therefore I needed to say, ‘There should be a free and independent press, but it ought to be accurate.’”
Bush made the remarks at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley during an hourlong question-and-answer session promoting “Portraits of Courage," his new book that features his paintings of veterans. While doing media interviews about the book in recent days, he has raised eyebrows by making comments about the media, immigrants and allegations of Russian interference in the November presidential election that were widely viewed as criticisms of the new president.
He said that he decided once he left the office not to second-guess his successor, former President Obama, and that the same holds true for Trump. Doing so would undermine the office, Bush said, adding that he wants all of his successors to succeed because it is good for the nation.
“I don’t want to make the president’s job worse, no matter what political party it is. It’s a hard job,” Bush said. “Sometimes my remarks can be construed as criticism. They’re certainly not meant to be, and after I finish this book tour you probably won’t hear from me for a while.”
But he was willing to offer advice to those who follow him.
“Know what you don’t know and find people who do know what you don’t know and listen to them,” he said. “My advice is that the job is different once you get in. It looks one way and then you get in the Oval Office and it looks different. Trust me.”
Bush also made an implicit criticism of Obama’s foreign policy when asked whether the world is more dangerous than it was four years ago.
“This may be taken as criticism of one of my successors and I don’t really mean it to be. There is a lesson however when the United States decides not to take the lead and withdraw,” he said. “Vacuums can be created when U.S. presence recedes and that vacuum is generally filed with people who don’t share the ideology, the same sense of human rights and human dignity and freedom that we do.”
Aside from a handful of serious moments, Bush was jovial and self-effacing as he described how he became an oil painter after leaving the White House. Seeking ways to fill his time, he said he read an essay by Winston Churchill about painting.
“I basically said, 'What the hell, this guy can paint, I can paint,'” Bush said.
He hired an instructor and started painting a cube and a watermelon before moving on to portraits. Former First Lady Laura Bush was not pleased with his depiction of her, so when he painted his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, he decided to depict her from behind.
Barbara Bush and former President George H.W. Bush are doing well despite their recent hospitalizations, the younger Bush said.
“They’re both great given their limitations. Dad can’t walk, he’s confined to a wheelchair and yet his spirit is joyful,” Bush said. “… Mom’s doing fine. She’s shrinking, and as she does, her voice gets louder. But she’s a, she’s a piece of work is what she is.”
Bush has been reclusive since leaving office, but said he wrote the book and is publicizing it to raise money for veterans and to draw attention to the “invisible wounds” many of them suffer.
“I think when you read [their stories] you’ll be moved by stories of courage, injury, recovery willingness to help others,” he said. “… I’ve got a platform – it’s not as big as it once was — and I intend to use it to help our veterans for the rest of my life, and this is one way to do so.”
The California Legislature’s four top leaders accepted $60,000 in gifts last year, including sports tickets, expensive meals, golf games and travel to foreign countries, according the annual reports they were required to file Wednesday.
Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) accepted 60 gifts worth $24,381, the largest amount of the four lawmakers, including travel expenses to Morocco, El Salvador, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
He received $3,100 in expenses at the Pebble Beach golf resort from the Assn. of California Life and Health Insurance Cos. and the Governor’s Cup Foundation in exchange for speeches. He also accepted free tickets to SeaWorld, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a soccer game at the Rose Bowl. The gifts were topped off with a $50 cigar from the Sacramento County Labor Council.
Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley reported accepting gifts worth $19,955, including dinners, a game ticket from the San Francisco 49ers and $880 in golf games, half of it provided by the state prison guards union.
Mayes’ biggest gift was $11,077 in travel expenses for a study trip to Germany and the Czech Republic paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a San Francisco think tank financed by interests including PG&E, Shell, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the State Building and Construction Trades Council, Tesoro and Chevron Corp.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) accepted 63 gifts valued at $12,949. The biggest was $5,680 in travel expenses to China paid for by the Chinese People’s Assn. for Friendship with Foreign Countries.
Rendon also received about $1,000 in art from Assembly staffers and a $68 bottle of scotch.
Senate Republican leader Jean Fuller of Bakersfield reported 29 gifts worth $2,942, including $763 in travel expenses from the California Independent Petroleum Assn. to speak at a conference in Newport Beach.
Gov. Jerry Brown accepted 27 gifts worth about $4,500 last year, including dinners and travel expenses, a cellphone, bottles of wine and a ticket to a basketball game from the Sacramento Kings, according to his annual filing of an economic interest form.
The amount is down significantly from 2015, when Brown accepted gifts valued at $22,136, including money from the California State Protocol Foundation to attend a climate change conference in Paris.
Last year’s biggest gift was $1,883 in travel expenses from his alma mater, Yale Law School, for a speech he gave at the New Haven, Conn., institution during reunion week. The event included him receiving the school’s prestigious Award of Merit.
Other travel expenses were provided by groups for speeches he gave in Santa Rosa and Mount Shasta. Brown also reported receiving dinners valued at $100 each from the U.S. State Department and United Nations.
He also received $191 worth of wine from Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa). The $299 cellphone was given to him by Yueting Jia, the founder of internet firm LeEco of San Jose. That would have run afoul of legislation vetoed in 2014 by Brown that would have reduced the value of gifts that could be accepted by an elected official from a single source in a year from $440 to $200.
It also would have banned gifts from lobbyists and lobbying firms to the governor and legislators, and barred officials from accepting many kinds of gifts, including tickets to professional sports contests, entertainment events and amusement parks, as well as free golf games and entertainment.
Brown also reported selling some large investments last year. He sold stock worth between $100,000 and $1 million in Health Fusion Inc., a medical office software company. He sold stock with the same value range in Edgewater Park Plaza, a development firm.
Senate Republican Leader Jean Fuller of Bakersfield has begun talking to colleagues about eventually stepping down and passing the torch to another member given that she is termed out of office next year, but so far nobody has publicly agreed to take over the job, officials say.
An attempt by the 13-member Senate Republican Caucus to discuss a possible transition Tuesday was interrupted by a fire alarm drill, so the subject was put off at least until the next weekly caucus meeting, March 7.
“[Fuller] has been calling all of us to say, 'Hey, are you interested,'” Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) said. “The question is, who is willing to take it and when do we do it?”
Fuller declined to comment on the issue, saying "It is the custom and practice to respect the members of the caucus and the discussions that we have."
Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) has been approached about the job by colleagues because term limits will not force her out of office until 2022, but she declined comment on Wednesday.
“Sen. Bates said that it would not be appropriate for her to comment at this time,” said Ronald Ongtoaboc, her spokesman.
Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Rocklin) is among those not interested in becoming the leader, a representative said. Moorlach is in the same boat.
“Who wants that job? I’ve got other things to do. It’s a busy job,” Moorlach said. “I was a business major, not a poli-sci major.”
The job is made more challenging by the fact that Democrats hold two-thirds majorities in both houses, meaning Republicans are no longer in a position to alone block major actions including tax increases.
California's cap-and-trade program limped through another weak auction of pollution permits last month, according to results provided by state regulators Wednesday.
Demand for the permits, which are required to release greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, has fluctuated over the last year amid questions about the program's long-term viability.
A state appeals court is expected to rule soon on whether cap and trade represents an unconstitutional tax, and lawmakers are debating whether they should ensure the program continues past 2020.
Final details on the latest auction have not been released, but the summary of results posted Wednesday indicates that revenue likely will be only about $8 million. Less than 20% of the permits offered through the auction were claimed.
That's a drop from the two previous auctions, which saw higher demand, and roughly equivalent to the May 2016 auction.
Regulators insist that generating revenue is not the goal of the cap-and-trade program. But among lawmakers, the money has been in high demand to fund transit projects and other initiatives. Gov. Jerry Brown also is counting on the program to help finance the bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said he's looking forward to working more on cap and trade and questioned whether it was delivering on its goals.
“The program is not producing stable revenues for important priorities like increased transit and other clean transportation investments," he said in a statement. "According to California Environmental Protection Agency, it may not even be achieving pollution reduction in disadvantaged communities, when that should be our utmost priority."
Chris Busch, who tracks the cap-and-trade market for environmental firm Energy Innovation, said the results announced Wednesday were surprising.
"It's going to take some more unpacking to really understand them," he said.
Busch expects demand to pick up in the coming months and years because more permits will be needed to cover the state's economic activity.
A state senator plans to amend a bill that would create a legal defense program for immigrants, making all people facing deportation in California eligible to apply for services regardless of criminal background.
Immigrant advocates and legal aid agencies have lauded the compromise, which they said would counter anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump administration associating illegal immigration with violent crime.
But it remains to be seen how moderate Democrats and Republicans, who have argued against using taxpayer funds to defend dangerous offenders, will accept the move.
The bill, introduced by state Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego), would require the California Department of Social Services to contract with local nonprofits to provide lawyers for immigrants caught in deportation or removal proceedings. It also would create a trust to accept private and philanthropic donations to cover legal aid.
From its inception, lawmakers have debated over who should benefit from the state-funded initiative as California faces a budget deficit and potential cuts to federal funding.
Hueso initially sought to provide counsel to all immigrants. But before the bill's first hearing in January, he amended it to exclude services for all those convicted of a violent felony under the state penal code.
Hueso's office is now considering an amendment that would make all immigrants eligible for screening. But it would prohibit representation of clients convicted of a violent crime unless they have "a meritorious claim for relief from deportation," meaning the person has a high likelihood of not being removed from the U.S. based on the facts of the case.
The change is being weighed because immigrants in some cases have been convicted of crimes they did not commit.
At a hearing Wednesday before the state Senate Judiciary Committee, representatives from several legal service groups said they were rescinding their opposition to the legislation based on the coming amendments.
Everyone in the U.S. is entitled to due process, or fair treatment under the law, regardless of legal status, lawyers told the committee. And "the consequences in removal proceedings are just as dire... in some instances more so than in a criminal context," said Raha Jorjani, an immigration lawyer with the Alameda County public defender's office.
As concerns mount over prescription drug abuse, a California legislator wants to impose a tax on addictive opioid medications and use the funds to expand prevention and rehabilitation services.
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) has introduced a bill that would impose a one-cent-per-milligram surcharge on prescription opioids sold in California. The tax would be imposed on wholesalers who import the medication into the state, not at the point of sale, and it would require a two-thirds approval vote in the Legislature.
“California’s opioid epidemic has cost state taxpayers millions and the lives of too many of our sons and daughters,” McCarty said in a statement. “We must do more to help these individuals find hope and sobriety. This plan will provide counties with critical resources needed to curb the deadly cycle of opioid and heroin addiction in California.”
McCarty's office estimates the surcharge would raise tens of millions for county drug treatment programs.
The measure, AB 1512, is not the only proposal offered by lawmakers this year to combat the growing problem of prescription drug abuse, which is closely linked to an explosion of heroin use.
State Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) is carrying a bill that would prohibit prescriptions of the painkiller oxycodone for anyone under 21, in an effort to quash opiate addiction among young people.
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said Wednesday that he is setting up an office in Washington, an unusual move for a state attorney general. Opening the new office is reflective of the fact that much of his attention will be devoted to Trump administration actions that might conflict with California policies, Becerra said.
Becerra, who has already filed three amicus briefings in lawsuits challenging Trump immigration orders, said the office will help him collaborate with members of California's congressional delegation on policies that affect the Golden State.
“Decisions that are going to affect California are going to be played out in Washington, D.C., and I think it’s important for my office to have a presence here,” Becerra said.
The state attorney general said he has hired Alejandro Perez, a former legislative affairs director for the Obama administration, to run the Washington office. It will be located in existing office space maintained by the California governor's office.
Becerra's predecessor, Kamala Harris, did not operate an office of the state Department of Justice in the nation's capital, officials said.
Meanwhile, in their first face-to-face meeting since he became California’s attorney general, Becerra has told U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions that the federal immigration crackdown can hurt public safety by making the immigrant community less willing to report crimes and cooperate with law enforcement.
Becerra said Wednesday that he was one of nearly 50 state and territorial attorneys general who met the day before with Sessions in a hotel ballroom during the winter meeting of the National Assn. of Attorneys General in Washington.
“I mentioned that in order for us to do our public safety [work], that you can’t really do it from Washington, D.C., and to continue to go after the folks who are committing crimes -- you’ve got to give people in the community a sense that law enforcement, locally or federally, is there to work with them,” Becerra said.
“I asked him if he would consider the fact that when people are panicked and are not willing to approach any law enforcement because of what they are hearing about the immigration actions that it makes it more difficult to protect public safety for everyone,” Becerra added.
Sessions responded that he has heard that argument before and that federal law enforcement does need to be careful not to undermine local law enforcement, Becerra recalled.
“He went on to say that they are going to do what they need to do to try to enforce immigration law to get people off the streets,” Becerra said of Sessions.
Becerra was also part of a large delegation of state attorneys general who went to the White House on Tuesday to meet briefly with President Trump, but said he and the president did not exchange words.
The attorney general noted he did not participate in a photograph of the attorneys general with the president, but declined to say why.
Updated 4:24 pm: This post was updated with information that the new attorney general's office will be located in building space already maintained by the governor in Washington, D.C.
Former President George W. Bush’s speech Wednesday evening at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley is billed as a discussion of his new book featuring his paintings honoring members of the military and veterans he became close to after leaving office. But all ears will be listening for whether the former president speaks out about President Trump.
Though Bush painstakingly avoided criticizing former President Barack Obama, his Democratic successor, after leaving office in 2009, he has raised eyebrows in recent days with remarks viewed as barbs aimed at Trump, a fellow Republican.
While promoting his book, “Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors,” Bush has spoken out about the importance of the media, immigrants and investigating allegations of Russian interference in the November presidential election.
“I think we all need answers” about the claims of Russian influence, Bush said Monday on NBC's "Today" show.
Days after Trump’s administration banned several media outlets including the Los Angeles Times from a briefing, Bush also called the free press "indispensable to democracy."
"We need an independent media to hold people like me to account," Bush said, adding that when he was president, he tried to impress the importance of a free press upon Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bush, 70, also told People magazine that he was displeased by the current political tone in the country.
“I don’t like the racism and I don’t like the name-calling and I don’t like the people feeling alienated,” he said in the magazine, which goes on sale Friday. “Nobody likes that.”
Bush was immediately slammed by conservative outlets.
“Bush undercuts Trump a month into presidency after staying silent on Obama for 8 years,” read a Monday headline in the Washington Times.
The fraternity of living American presidents is small, leading to relationships that can cross party lines.
Bush and his wife Laura attended Trump’s inauguration in January, though his representatives said that neither voted for the GOP nominee. Bush’s brother Jeb, the former Florida governor, ran for the GOP presidential nomination against Trump and tangled with the billionaire, who labeled him “low-energy.”
Bush’s relationship with Obama is unclear, but pictures earlier this year of him and former First Lady Michelle Obama warmly embracing at the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture were widely circulated on social media. His father, former President George H.W. Bush, has a famously warm relationship with former President Bill Clinton, who unseated the elder Bush in 1992.
George W. Bush has largely eschewed the public limelight since leaving office, instead picking up the hobby of painting.
But he has made exceptions for promoting causes that are important to him, notably veterans. Tickets for Bush's speech about “Portraits of Courage" are sold out.
Proceeds from the book, which contains 66 portraits and a mural Bush painted of soldiers who served in the U.S. armed forces during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, will benefit groups that help veterans.
Top Democratic officeholders in California gave unsurprisingly negative reviews of President Trump's first speech to Congress.
Here's a sampling of the live-tweeted comebacks from statewide officeholders:
Absent from the insta-commentary was the Democrat at the very top of California's political hierarchy: Gov. Jerry Brown. His Twitter feed had no immediate mention of the president's speech.
California lawmakers were quick to react through social media to President Trump's speech to a joint session of Congress.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) and Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) wrote a number of tweets critical of both Trump's tone and his policy proposals.
De León took issue, in particular, with the president's comments on changes to the nation's immigration system that would end what he called the "current system of lower-skilled immigration."
Republicans praised the speech. Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) applauded promises on education, healthcare and illegal immigration.
Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), an emergency medicine physician, disagreed with the president's pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Others retweeted various items related to the speech, from news organization fact-checking efforts to excerpts provided by the White House.
After weeks of criticizing President Trump over his travel ban, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra was noticeably absent Tuesday when two dozen state attorneys general posed for a photo with Trump at the White House.
Becerra was in Washington with 47 counterparts from other states for the winter meeting of the National Assn. of Attorneys General, where the elected officials were set to discuss healthcare fraud, abuse and waste.
Trump stood on a riser with some 24 attorneys general for the photo in the East Room, according to a pool report.
Representatives for Becerra did not return emails and phone calls seeking information on whether he was invited or decided to skip the event.
"Some great people, some great people," Trump said during the photo session.
Florida Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi, who was standing to his left, responded: "Thank you, Mr. President."
Supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders don't have many clues yet on whom to back in the dizzying array of candidates vying for the 34th Congressional District.
Sanders himself has been coy about the race: When asked whether he would endorse Arturo Carmona, a former deputy political director for his campaign, he said: "We'll see."
Three prominent Sanders endorsers have publicly announced their support for Wendy Carrillo, another early Sanders backer.
Lucy Flores, a former Nevada legislator Sanders endorsed for Congress last year; Rania Batrice, former deputy campaign manager for Sanders' presidential bid; and Linda Sarsour, a Muslim American activist and co-chair of the Women's March on Washington, announced Tuesday that they support Carrillo, who recently spent time at the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Although Flores has been campaigning for and supporting Carrillo on social media for months, her endorsement was highlighted as part of an effort to emphasize Carrillo's support within the Sanders political network.
"Wendy is a woman of the revolution, and I am so proud to support her as she continues her activism and tireless work on behalf of the people," Batrice said in a statement released by Carrillo's campaign.
Our Revolution, the political group Sanders helped start that now operates independently, decided recently not to endorse in the April 4 primary, in which 23 candidates are running.
The group has endorsed six candidates nationwide so far in 2017, including Gil Cedillo for Los Angeles City Council.
Shannon Jackson, executive director of Our Revolution, said its board carefully weighed the decision not to endorse.
"We listened to our supporters, and the base is split," Jackson said. "We don’t want to go against the people who are there on the ground, doing the work."
5:28 p.m.: This post was updated to include context about Our Revolution's other endorsements.
Two years ago, Holly J. Mitchell stood on the state Senate floor and, in a crisp, deliberate voice, laced into the budget that her fellow Democrats were poised to approve.
The plan “picks winners and losers,” the state senator from Los Angeles said. “It appears to me that poor people in California and their children continue to be on the losing end of that equation.”
Mitchell had never been shy in urging her colleagues to do more for the poor. But this time, she went even further — withholding her support when the bill came to a vote, a flagrant violation of an unwritten legislative rule among the Capitol’s ruling Democrats that could best be described as “thou shalt not defect on a budget vote.”
The plan passed anyway, and Mitchell could’ve been shunned and made a pariah. But since that rebellion, her influence has only grown. Last year, her signature cause — repeal of a decades-old rule capping aid to certain mothers on welfare — became law. And this year, she was awarded the job she’s long coveted: chair of the Senate budget committee.
A Los Angeles artist has proposed a new ballot initiative to add protections for gender identity to the California Constitution.
Illma Gore submitted paperwork to the state attorney general on Monday proposing a ballot initiative to add a new section to the state Constitution declaring "free exercise and enjoyment of gender identity without discrimination or preference are guaranteed."
The initiative is dubbed the Gender Identity Liberty and Freedom Act.
The language mirrors an existing section protecting religious beliefs that reads: "free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference" in the Constitution.
Gore, the artist behind the measure, became something of an Internet sensation after she was banned from Facebook for sharing a painting she made depicting a nude Donald Trump. She also said she was punched by a Trump supporter last year.
The attorney general is tasked with crafting a brief title and summary of each measure that will end up on the state ballot.
There is a 30-day public comment period on Gore's proposal. The state Department of Finance and the Legislative Analyst's Office also have 50 days to prepare a fiscal impact analysis of the proposal.
After a title and summary are issued, Gore has 180 days to gather 585,407 valid signatures to qualify the proposed initiative for the ballot.
Gore said volunteers are starting to prepare for the signature-gathering process.
"California is one of the leaders of the country in diversity and LGBT rights. I don't think we will have a problem gathering signatures here," she said in an email.
She said the goal of the measure is to "protect gender identity as a form of free speech under the Constitution."
The initiative would essentially make LGBT rights the same as religious rights in the Constitution, said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in election law.
"It is trying to stave off or prevent individual laws that, for instance, deal with a landlord who doesn't want to rent to a transgender person, or an employer who doesn't want to provide the same level of benefits, or maybe a pediatrician who doesn't want to serve a gay couple," she said.
Three Californians whose relatives were killed by people in the U.S. illegally will be among President Trump’s guests as he addresses a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night.
Their presence indicates that illegal immigration -- on which Trump staked his campaign -- will likely be a major part of his speech to the Senate and House .
Tens of thousands of rape kits are sitting untested in evidence locker rooms across the country. But no one knows exactly how many, and police and sheriff's departments rarely track the reasons why the exams go unanalyzed.
A bill authored by Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) would require local law enforcement agencies in California to report information on their rape kit evidence to the state Department of Justice through a database within 120 days of the collection of a sample.
Chiu said the improved recording would help policymakers assess which departments need resources to tackle their backlogs, and provide greater transparency around an intrusive procedure that lasts hours.
"We know the value and the power of DNA evidence," he said. "But for thousands of survivors and victims in California, they don’t know why the DNA evidence has not been tested."
The legislation moved out of the Assembly Public Safety Committee on Tuesday on a 7-0 vote.
Speaking before the committee, Cory Salzillo, legislative director with the California State Sheriffs' Assn., said his organization opposed the bill due to its fiscal and workload implications.
"It creates another unfunded mandate," he said, while state law already requires law enforcement agencies to notify victims when their samples will not be examined.
But supporters said the state needed better reporting mechanisms as it attempts to measure and potentially reduce a backlog that the state Justice Department has estimated to reach upward of 400,000 untested rape kits.
Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy O'Malley said police agencies log all of the kits in their property collection databases. The additional work the bill would require would amount only to a "few extra keystrokes," she said.