California lawmakers return to the Capitol to tackle leftover business

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) has said she intends to introduce legislation to help part-time workers.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) has said she intends to introduce legislation to help part-time workers.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

When state lawmakers return Monday for the start of the new legislative year, their plate will be full of leftovers from 2015, including bills to snuff out smoking, raise the minimum wage and expand the state’s policies on paid family leave.

And the 2016 agenda will get even more crowded with the raft of new bills lawmakers will introduce as they return from a nearly three-month recess, including a focus on tightening California’s already tough gun laws in the wake of last month’s deadly terrorist attack in San Bernardino.

But the typical chaos of the Capitol may be intensified this year, the last of the two-year session, with turnover among three of the four top leadership positions and increasing overlap between ballot measures and legislative action.


And looming large are the November elections, in which every Assembly seat and half the Senate seats will be up for grabs, which could make it more difficult to push through controversial proposals.

“I’ve got a feeling that this being an election year, lawmakers won’t want to ruffle any feathers because this electorate is so volatile, even in California,” said Patrick Dorinson, a political blogger and former deputy secretary for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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That may especially be the case when it comes to tax increases, which require a two-thirds vote in each house. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown called for special attention to the state’s transportation and healthcare needs, but his administration was unable to secure the bipartisan support necessary to approve new taxes to fund those programs.

With those questions remaining unresolved, healthcare and infrastructure will probably be key issues in Brown’s new budget proposal, which he will release in the coming days.

The bills that were delayed last year often deal with the thorniest political issues, such as Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s effort to craft state guidelines on police use of body cameras. The San Diego Democrat introduced her bill after a string of high-profile police shootings, but the proposal sputtered under stiff opposition from law enforcement groups.


“I thought that with all the stuff that happened, it would at least make it easier to have the conversation at the Capitol,” Weber said. But she said the debate “was just shut down.”

She plans to revisit body cameras this year, although continued resistance from some police groups may make it an uphill battle.

Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) also plans to return to a bill to require more transparency about how prescription drugs are priced. The measure promises to spark a clash between two deep-pocketed interest groups: health insurers, which back the proposal, and pharmaceutical companies, which oppose it.

That standoff will probably be affected by a separate but similar battle that is brewing as a ballot measure. An initiative by the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which recently qualified for the November ballot, would bar the state from paying more for prescription drugs than the cost negotiated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Drug companies are expected to spend heavily in opposition.

“Solving the problem of exploding drug prices needs more than one approach,” Chiu said in a statement. “The ballot measure brings more attention to the crisis and bolsters the need for transparency around costs.”

The November ballot could potentially be full of other initiatives that mirror bills making their way through the Legislature, including ballot measures raising the minimum wage, expanding gun control, regulating electronic cigarettes and raising tobacco taxes.

Those ballot measures may make it harder to win legislative approval of similar bills, said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University.

“For many if not most legislators the thinking will be ‘Why should I put my neck on the line when I can defer to the will of the electorate?’” Gerston said.

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who has a reputation for tackling particularly difficult issues, is unfazed by the challenges of the new legislative year. He has three high-profile measures left over from 2015, including one to restrict the use of electronic cigarettes.

The anti-vaping bill is one of five measures proposed last year to address tobacco use, including proposals to increase the tobacco tax by $2 a pack, raise the smoking age from 18 to 21 and expand the number of public places where smoking would be prohibited.

“It is virtually unregulated,” Leno said of the electronic cigarette industry. “This is a multibillion-dollar industry that is doubling every other year, and the fastest-growing market segment is middle and high school students who have never smoked a cigarette before.”

The tobacco industry plans to fight the new measure, as do e-cigarette enthusiasts. Because vaping devices uses vapor instead of combustible tobacco, they are safer than regular cigarettes and are often used by smokers to kick the habit, according to Erick Beall of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Assn.

Leno and medical groups including the American Lung Assn. of California dispute that electronic cigarettes are a safe alternative to smoking and say one can lead to the other.

Leno is also the sponsor of a bill that would raise the state minimum wage to $13 per hour in 2017.

“We’ve always believed that it should not be legal to pay a sub-poverty wage in California,” Leno said. “We have the highest rate of poverty in the country.”

He expects continued strong opposition from the business community, which has so far been able to get enough Republicans and moderate Democrats to withhold their support.

Leno said the unemployment rate has gone down in California from the time the minimum wage was raised from $8 to $9 18 months ago until last week, when it went to $10 per hour.

News events can often dictate legislators’ focus. The San Bernardino attack, in which 14 were killed and 22 wounded, has brought gun control back to the forefront. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) recently said he would submit a package of gun control bills to his colleagues.

They are expected to include a requirement that buyers of ammunition be screened to determine whether they are disqualified from possessing guns because of criminal records or serious mental illness.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) is separately proposing to ban the sale of weapons to people on the federal government’s “no fly” list, an idea that’s also been debated in Congress.

Efforts are also expected to address the changing nature of the workplace. Of particular interest may be the rising number of those who work in part-time jobs — the so-called “gig economy.” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) has said she intends to introduce legislation to allow those workers to use their collective power for new on-the-job protections and benefits.

Others, meanwhile, plan to address workplace issues that tie back to presidential politics. Though California is expected to be all but forgotten on the campaign for the White House, the 2016 race may seep into Sacramento with liberal policies to aid working families, such as paid family leave.

Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) said he hopes to capitalize on that campaign rhetoric to boost a bill he introduced last year to expand the state’s paid family leave law.

“When there’s a national conversation about this issue, it’s a big deal,” said Gomez, who has been in negotiations with Brown’s administration about the measure.

“Knowing that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would be focusing on paid family leave, I knew I could afford to wait a few months to work with the governor and hopefully get a signature,” he said. “I believed the political environment would be more ripe.”

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