California Legislature faces raft of bills on volatile issues
SACRAMENTO — State lawmakers, back from their summer break and starting their final month in session, have a lengthy to-do list that features such politically volatile issues as environmental rules, gun control and immigration.
Some 1,100 bills — about 275 a week, or 55 a day — require action before the Legislature adjourns Sept. 13 if they are to become law by the beginning of next year. Among them are proposals to relax California’s landmark environmental quality law; place restrictions on the controversial oil extraction method known as fracking; and grant new benefits to those in the country illegally.
Lawmakers also are expected to decide whether to outlaw the sale, purchase and manufacture of semiautomatic rifles that accommodate detachable magazines that hold multiple bullets — one of a raft of gun bills filed after last year’s massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
And they will consider a bid to increase California’s minimum wage by $1.25 an hour, to $9.25, over three years.
“This is the last four weeks of session,” Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said. “Some would say it’s a time of peril, and I would say it’s a time of great opportunity.”
The annual end-of-session scrum is typically a time of last-minute bill writing, accelerated lobbying and frenzied horse trading. This year has a new twist: the largest freshman class in the Capitol since the Legislature became full-time in 1967, the product of newly drawn voting districts and more than two decades of term limits.
“There’s folks that aren’t as familiar with the details of the process,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), a first-year lawmaker and former legislative staffer. “They might take a more cautious approach, which might slow the process down a little bit.”
One thing lawmakers don’t have to deal with is the budget crisis that required tens of billions of dollars in service cuts in previous years.
“The Legislature does face tricky issues,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “But for the time being, legislative life is not as daunting as it was a few years ago.”
But even without a budget battle, Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway (R-Tulare) said the year’s final push offers potential for chaos. She said she would counsel her caucus, particularly its new members, to study upcoming issues so they won’t be caught off-guard when the action speeds up. But she acknowledged that preparation has limits.
“The hard part for all of us in this process is that at the end, you can’t prepare,” she said. “You have bills where you haven’t even seen the language and things get stuck into bills or [there are] last-minute revisions. And you don’t have time to really look at it or study it or even talk to anybody.”
Prisons could be one of those issues. The Legislature has taken little action on the options for reducing inmate crowding that Gov. Jerry Brown — under court order — presented to lawmakers in June. But Steinberg said finding a way to comply with federal judges’ requirement that nearly 10,000 inmates be removed from the prisons by Dec. 31 is now a top priority.
“There is public safety at issue here in a very real way,” Steinberg said. Any money the state needs to spend on new housing for prisoners, he said, must be matched with new funds for drug treatment and mental healthcare to help people stay out of prison once they leave.
In other matters, a big unknown is whether the Legislature will attempt to change the state’s unemployment insurance program, which pays eligible Californians up to $450 a week.
The program is $10 billion in debt to the federal government, and Brown has proposed raising payroll taxes paid by employers to patch that deficit. Business groups oppose the plan, arguing that higher taxes would hurt job growth.
The Legislature’s leaders have their own priorities. Steinberg is putting his reputation on the line by vowing to adopt changes to the California Environmental Quality Act, which contains tough rules for developers.
Brown has said he is doubtful there can be a major overhaul of the CEQA this year, and environmentalists and some business groups oppose such a move. But Steinberg is trying to forge ahead with a moderate change, saying the law’s strict requirements choke off much-needed urban development.
He wants to reduce the environmental review required for projects in highly developed neighborhoods where the effect has already been studied. His bill passed the Senate in May and awaits action in the Assembly.
Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) was chilly on the bill’s prospects, saying last week that he was “not optimistic there will be any significant changes to CEQA this year.”
A different environmental battle is brewing in the Assembly, over the use of fracking in California. The practice involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release oil and natural gas. It is widespread in California but sparsely regulated.
Of the nine bills dealing with fracking this year, a proposal by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) is the one still in play, after passing the Senate in May. The others failed or were shelved.
Pavley’s bill would require well operators to get permits for fracking and disclose the chemicals they use. It would direct the state to conduct an independent study of fracking’s environmental and health effects. But it would not ban the practice while the study is taking place, unlike some other bills that failed.
The oil industry is lobbying heavily against the legislation. The bill could face resistance from moderates in the Assembly, particularly lawmakers from the Central Valley, an oil-rich region.
On the subject of immigration, Steinberg said the Senate could approve legislation, already passed in the Assembly, to make more undocumented immigrants eligible for California drivers’ licenses and limit the ability of local law enforcement agencies to hold immigrants who have no papers for deportation unless they are charged with serious crimes.
Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) has support from many Democrats for his proposal to raise the minimum wage. But the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., a San Fernando Valley business group, is fighting the measure.
So is the California Chamber of Commerce, which sees the measure as a “job killer.”
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