Capitol Journal

How far left can California's legislative Democrats go before Republicans benefit at the ballot box?

Democrats in the state Legislature are walking a tightrope, seemingly oblivious to potential danger.

First, they raised gas taxes and vehicle fees. Then the Senate passed a ridiculously costly universal healthcare plan. Now, the Legislature is getting close to helping undocumented criminals avoid deportation.

How far left can the majority party careen, even in deep blue California, before Republicans start benefiting at the ballot box?

The gas-tax hike was gutsy and needed. Actually, it will only return fuel taxes to essentially where they were 25 years ago, adjusted for inflation. The $5.2 billion raised annually will allow the state to finally begin repairing crumbling highways.

But California voters only like state taxes that other people pay. A recent poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that 58% of voters oppose the transportation funding plan.

In contrast to the gas-tax legislation, Senate passage of a single-payer healthcare bill, in which the state would pay all medical costs for Californians, was simply irresponsible. The Senate’s own analysis pegged the annual price tag at an astronomical $400 billion.

How does the Legislature expect to finance a California-only single-payer system? The Senate dodged that question. It sent the Assembly a bill without a funding plan. The Democrats’ main goal, it seemed, was to appease the legislation’s primary advocate: the politically potent California Nurses Assn.

Next up is Senate leader Kevin de León’s push to pass his so-called sanctuary state bill to protect immigrants here illegally from President Trump’s deportation zealotry. Good idea — unless those to be protected are common criminals.

“Let me be clear,” the Los Angeles Democrat says. “SB 54 is not about safeguarding criminals. In fact, it will ensure that serious criminals will serve their full sentences in California. Now ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] plucks criminals out of jail and sends them across the border before their trials.

“We’re focused on arresting dangerous criminals, prosecuting them and imprisoning them — not engaging in criminal dumping and letting them avoid prosecution, only to come back to our neighborhoods and prey on our residents. That to me is scandalous.”

No disagreement there. No one is arguing that crooks shouldn’t be prosecuted and serve out their full sentences. But what happens then? Should they be released back into the neighborhoods or handed over to the feds for potential deportation?

Under De León’s bill, state prison officials and local jailers could only notify the feds about the pending release of an inmate here illegally if he’d been convicted of a “serious” or “violent” felony.

That leaves out a whole bunch of other felonies and high-grade misdemeanors — things like burglary, human trafficking, assault on a police officer, rape of an unconscious person, spousal abuse and repeated drunk driving.

Boot them all back across the border that they previously crossed illegally, possibly many times. That’s my view. But help protect the law-abiding immigrants who pick crops, wash restaurant dishes, mow lawns — and often are headed toward college degrees. Protect them from the feds and the crooks.

“Talk to people in the immigrant community, and they don’t want these [criminals] coming back into their neighborhoods because they prey on them disproportionately,” says Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, president of the California State Sheriffs’ Assn., which opposes De León’s bill.

“When we start parsing who law enforcement can and cannot call ICE on, it’s a very slippery slope,” the sheriff says, adding that De León’s bill “essentially provides sanctuary for criminals.”

The Senate leader vehemently rejects that assertion. The FBI gets fingerprints of everyone jailed, he says.

“If they want someone, they can get a judicial warrant and pick him up.”

Law enforcement says that’s easier said than carried out.

The state sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ organizations also object to other features of the bill. One would restrict local cops’ ability to team up with federal officials on criminal investigations if immigration enforcement is involved. Another would make it difficult for immigration officers to interview inmates in local jails.

Updates from Sacramento »

Hardly anyone — except maybe some Republican legislators — opposes the bill’s main purpose: to prohibit state and local cops from helping enforce federal immigration laws.

California tax money, it’s generally agreed, should be spent solely on enforcing state laws. Let the feds use their own resources for enforcing federal laws.

“We do not want to be in the business of front-line immigration enforcement,” says Gardena Police Chief Edward Medrano, president of the California Police Chiefs Assn. “We want to make sure we retain trust and credibility in our communities, regardless of immigration status.”

Sheriff Brown: “Local law enforcement should not — and indeed does not — enforce federal law. We’re not out there scooping people from hotels and restaurants.”

He adds: “This [bill] really is about political posturing and being against the Trump administration.”

The bill passed the Senate in April and cleared the Assembly Public Safety Committee last week, both on party-line votes. De León is seeking a Judiciary Committee hearing next week.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck endorsed the bill Monday.

“This is not a soft-on-crime bill,” he insisted.

But not all law enforcement agrees.

“We’re still talking with the sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ associations,” De León says. They’ll require some serious compromising by the Senate leader.

Democratic legislators have been behaving as if they can’t fall from their lofty supermajority perch. Keep it up and there could be a jarring splat.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°