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Essential Politics archive: Updates from Sacramento

Welcome to our archived feed of Essential Politics, from Jan. 25 through Feb. 18.

Bookmark latimes.com/essentialpolitics to get our latest at what’s happening in Sacramento and across the Golden State.

Looking for something we wrote when the session got started? Find our archived news feed here.

Make sure to follow us on Twitter for more, or subscribe to our free daily newsletter and the California Politics Podcast.

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The latest Essential Politics news feed has gotten started over here.

You can bookmark latimes.com/essentialpolitics to track the latest in Sacramento and around the state.

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The right stuff: Conservative Tom McClintock endorses Tom Del Beccaro for U.S. Senate

Joe Biden to headline California Democratic Party convention

(Larry French / Getty Images for ANOC)

Vice President Joe Biden will rally the party faithful next weekend, as California Democrats gather for their annual convention.

The state Democratic Party has announced Biden will speak to attendees on Saturday, Feb. 27, at the convention in San Jose.

It’s worth noting that in the last open race for the White House, Biden took a pass on wooing California’s Democrats. He was the only candidate in the 2008 Democratic presidential race who skipped the California party’s convention in 2007.

Neither of this year’s major contenders, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is scheduled to attend next weekend.

Biden will be joined by Sen. Barbara Boxer and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich as the marquee attractions.

Fracking opponents take aim at Gov. Brown in new movie

A documentary that takes sharp aim at the use of extracting oil through hydraulic fracturing premieres tonight at showings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the title makes it clear where the filmmakers are pointing their critique.

The documentary is called, quite simply, “Dear Governor Brown.”

The 20-minute film focuses on California’s oil industry, with the filmmakers making it clear that Brown and state officials haven’t done enough when it comes to fracking.

The team behind the movie, led by filmmaker Jon Bowermaster and actor Mark Ruffalo, produced a similar critique of fracking in New York in 2012 titled “Dear Governor Cuomo.”

An invitation to tonight’s Los Angeles showing boasts that when it comes to California’s governor, the film “will expose his oily record, and lift up the voices most impacted by his decisions.”

Brown has faced continued criticism for his dismissal of calls to impose an outright moratorium on fracking in California. After signing a 2013 law to impose new state government oversight, he’s subsequently said he supports “efficient” oil production while looking for longer term replacements.

Ruffalo, an actor most recently known for his roles in the Oscar-nominated movie “Spotlight” and as the comic-book superhero the Hulk, has been dogging Brown for months about his record on oil drilling.

Assembly GOP lays out wish list in talks over health plans tax

The long, wonky negotiations over Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to revamp a tax on healthcare plans are now getting more overtly political.

The Assembly GOP caucus has staked out its bargaining stance, looking to dictate more than $800 million in spending that would be made possible by the new tax package.

Senate Republicans have taken a more hardline position against the proposal. Other GOP allies, including health insurers and the California Chamber of Commerce, publicly support the plan.

And on Thursday, the influential anti-tax group the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. said it’s neutral on the measure, which could provide political cover for typically tax-averse Republicans to come on board.

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Immigrants would get financial help to become doctors, nurses under new legislation

State Sen. Ricardo Lara wants to provide financial help for immigrants seeking to be medical workers.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Immigrants in the country illegally who study to become physicians and nurses would be able to get the same financial help from the state provided to citizens under legislation announced Thursday by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens).

Lara, who has pioneered other immigrant laws, said his bill is necessary to help address a shortage of medical workers in California, especially in under-served immigrant communities.

“Despite the ability for undocumented students to apply for a professional license, these future physicians, nurses and clinical social workers and medical assistants are unable to apply for scholarships or loan repayment,” Lara said in a statement. “This bill will strengthen California’s workforce by ensuring our skilled medical professionals can complete their education and contribute to the well-being of our state.”

The state Health Professions Education Foundation is a nonprofit group that awards scholarships and loan repayments of up to $105,000 to health professionals who are qualified to serve patients for whom English is a second language. The money comes from administrative fines and penalties on health plans, the millionaires tax for mental health services imposed by 2004’s Proposition 63, and health professional licensing surcharges.

Currently, health professionals need to be able to provide a social security number to be eligible for payments, which limits it to legal residents. Lara’s bill would allow applicants to use taxpayer identification numbers, which are available to noncitizens.

Follow along!

Former Central Valley legislator tapped for Air Resources Board

(Stefano Paltera / Los Angeles Times)

A former state senator who points to air pollution in his native Central Valley as a priority has been appointed to the California Air Resources Board, one of two spots on the powerful panel created through a law signed last year.

Dean Florez, a native of Kern County, was tapped on Wednesday afternoon by the Senate Rules Committee to become the newest member of the air board.

Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said in a written statement that the former Democratic legislator has “the experience to fight for kids struggling to breathe in our communities and the resolve to stand up to the oil lobby who want to keep the status quo.”

Florez, 52, served for 12 years in the Legislature with most of that in the Senate, before leaving in 2010. He currently owns a public affairs company and has been active in higher education issues since leaving elected office.

Earlier this month, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) appointed environmental advocate Diane Takvorian to the air pollution agency’s governing board. Both positions were created after Gov. Jerry Brown signed Atkins’ bill last year to expand the air board’s membership by two spots, with both new members tasked to speak on behalf of disadvantaged communities.

"“Today’s ground zero on air pollution is located in communities of color in Los Angeles, Central Valley, and the Inland Empire,” said Florez in a written statement. “People there don’t drive high end cars, but they breathe dirty air and suffer from pollution more than others.”

Legislators introduce bipartisan student privacy bill

A trio of state Assembly members wants to prohibit school districts from collecting students’ Social Security numbers and other sensitive information.

The measure was inspired by news that 10 million public school students’ records -- that include Social Security numbers and medical information -- must be turned over to a parents advocacy organization that is suing the state Department of Education.

The parents’ suit contends that special needs students are not getting enough school resources.

Two Democratic Assembly members, Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego and Mike Gatto of Glendale, and one Republican, Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore, want to stop schools from collecting such data in the first place.

Their bill, which was introduced Wednesday, would bar schools from asking for Social Security numbers and other sensitive information.

“As a mom, I’ve seen my kids’ schools over the years request Social Security numbers, medical information, and other private information that they don’t need or have a right to,” Gonzalez said in a statement.

“Rather than expecting parents to have the knowledge and capacity to fight to protect their child’s privacy, we should get schools out of the business of asking in the first place.”

Legislation aims to close racial wage gap

A new wage-equality law aimed at helping women in California should be extended to also reduce disparities in pay by race, a state lawmaker said Wednesday.

Sen. Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) introduced a bill that would prohibit employers from paying workers a wage rate less than the rate paid to employees of a different race or ethnicity for “substantially similar” work.

“No employee should be denied an equal wage for an equal day of work,” said Hall, who is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, during a Capitol news conference. “It is an economic injustice. It is discriminatory. It is just wrong.”

Hall cited a 2013 study by the American Assn. of University Women that found African American men earn 75% of the average salary of a Caucasian male worker in California, while African American women make 64 cents, and Hispanic or Latina women make just 54 cents for every dollar that a white man earns.

The new standard would make it easier for employees to challenge what they believe is unfair pay, borrowing language from a gender pay law approved last year by the Legislature and governor.

Hall said his mother had to work three jobs to care for her six kids, which was difficult. “It is even more difficult to do when your job pays you less than your white co-workers,” he said.

The measure is supported by several civil rights activists, including Cassandra Jennings, president of the Greater Sacramento Urban League, who said the wage disparity is “unacceptable.”

“This puts many of our participants at a huge disadvantage in entering the workplace,” she said during the news conference to announce SB 1063.

School bus safety bill introduced after Whittier student’s death

Concerned by the death last year of a special needs teenager left on a bus during a heat wave, a state lawmaker on Tuesday proposed that California school buses be equipped with child-safety alarm systems.

Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) said such alarms prompt the driver to inspect all seats before leaving the bus, making sure drivers do not leave children unattended.

“No parent should fear that their child will not return home safely at the end of the day,” Mendoza said. “My hope is that SB 1072 will prevent future tragedies by requiring every school bus in the state to be equipped with a child-safety alarm system.”

Mendoza was reacting to the September death of 19-year-old special needs student Hun Joon Lee, who regularly rode a school bus from his home in Whittier to the Sierra Education Center in Whittier.

When he didn’t return home on time one day, his parents called the school. Lee was found slumped in the aisle of a bus that had been parked for the day.

State senator tries again to ban elephant bullhooks

State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) is making another run at a measure to outlaw the use of bullhooks when handling elephants.

Lara tried last year to make it a misdemeanor to use the sharp devices in order to train or manage elephants. But the measure was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who nixed a number of bills that would have created new crimes.

This time, Lara proposes adding a new section to the state’s Fish and Game Code to outlaw the use of bullhooks.

“I remain committed to protecting elephants from abusive management practices. It is a privilege to possess elephants in California and we should not tolerate mistreating elephants for any reason,” Lara said in a statement.

The city of Los Angeles passed a bullhook ban in 2014.

Some voters skipping intra-party races, says analyst

(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

One of the selling points for California’s top-two primary system was that when two candidates from the same party moved on to the November election, they would have to court voters whose party was left out and thus create an advantage for more centrist candidates.

But if the voters without a party standard bearer simply skip that race altogether, then is the new system really working as promised?

That’s the question posed in a new column penned by Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc. for the online news publication Capitol Weekly.

Mitchell has been tracking the “undervote” ballots from the last two election cycles, a phenomenon where a voter leaves one or more races blank. And he’s found that the percentage of undervotes is demonstrably higher in races featuring either two Democrats or two Republicans.

“And this undervote contains an unpleasant truth about the open primary,” writes Mitchell. “In some cases, voters from both sides just abstain from the process rather than serve as a counterbalance to extreme partisanship.”

Mitchell says that since 2012, there have been more than a dozen legislative races in which the percentage of undervotes was substantially higher than normal — and that all of them were intra-party contests.

“It is possible that trends will change as more voters become familiar with intra-party general elections,” he writes. “But for this to happen, it would probably require a big statewide intraparty race for governor, U.S. Senate or another constitutional office.”

Kamala Harris douses Supreme Court speculation

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The big, expensive ballot season is coming

A number of California’s most experienced political consultants say to keep an eye on what happens between now and early April, when backers of potential ballot measures are going to have to make some tough decisions about what they’re willing to spend on a November statewide election.

And at this point, there’s at least one analysis to suggest the grand total could be as high as $500 million by the time voters have their say on a bumper crop of ballot measures Nov. 8.

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Like-minded governors sign energy accord

Congressmen want federal employees to use ride share

Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) are asking that federal employees be allowed to be reimbursed for using ride-sharing services such as Lyft or Uber.

The letter asks the General Services Administration to instruct federal agencies to issue a guidance that using the services is permitted, encouraged and reimbursable.

Issa and Swalwell are co-chairmen of the House Sharing Economy Caucus. Uber and Lyft, the best-known ride share services, are based in San Francisco.

“Ride-sharing companies are often a more efficient and less expensive way to travel. A little [administration] guidance would go a long way toward getting all agencies on board with the future of local transportation,” Swalwell said in a statement.

Issa said the federal government should embrace the use of ride-sharing services, as consumers have.

“In many cases it will save a traveler time and money, making it a common sense choice the [administration] should allow for government business travel,” Issa said in a statement.

In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation allowing the state’s 228,000 employees to be reimbursed for the cost of using the sharing-economy businesses for business travel. The legislation took effect last month.

Newsom gets some celebrity support for gun effort

Scalia’s death prompts speculation about Kamala Harris

California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris on Monday morning holds her first public event since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and the subsequent speculation about her potential consideration to fill his vacancy.

Harris’ spokesman politely says the candidate is flattered, but focused on her Senate race.

Here’s why the speculation is unlikely to amount to more than just talk.

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Loretta Sanchez garners backing of Latino Victory Fund

Rep. Loretta Sanchez
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Senate hopeful Rep. Loretta Sanchez has earned the backing of the Latino Victory Fund, a political action committee that supports Latino candidates and includes billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as co-chairmen.

The endorsement, which the Washington-based group will announce this morning, is not a major surprise. If elected, Sanchez would be the Senate’s first Latina. But she has a long way to go, and first faces a primary against California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris.

That’s what is intriguing about the endorsement — Maya Harris, the sister of Sanchez’s top Democratic rival, is on the board of directors of the group’s parent organization, the Latino Victory Project.

Cristóbal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, praised Sanchez as a champion of “issues that the Latino community cares about, including working to improve the economy, to ensure that our children receive access to quality education and that our communities have a clean, safe environment.”

The Latino Victory Project was founded by actress Eva Longoria and businessman and Democratic fundraiser Henry R. Muñoz III. The group also aims to increase voter registration and turnout among Latinos.

Steyer, a former hedge fund manager and deep-pocketed Democratic donor, joined the Latino Victory Fund in January. He serves as a co-director along with Villaraigosa, Texas Rep. Joaquín Castro and Melissa Mark-Viverito , speaker of the New York City Council.

Jerry Brown to talk clean energy Tuesday

Big 2016 campaign moves in this week’s podcast

The 2016 campaign season in California was big news in the week that’s just ended, with one fewer candidate in the race for the U.S. Senate and new challenges for Gov. Jerry Brown’s political agenda.

In this week’s California Politics Podcast, we also discuss the intense debate over the future of the Coastal Commission, and the fascinating politics of gender equity bills introduced in the Legislature.

You can subscribe the podcast via iTunes here.

How much did Prop. 47 save the state? New estimate says more than Brown promised

(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The Brown administration may have underestimated the state’s savings as a result of Proposition 47 by as much as $100 million, says the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Prop. 47, an initiative passed by California voters in 2014, downgraded drug possession and other nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.

Brown’s budget had estimated that the savings would be about $39 million.

In a report released Friday suggesting the total savings could be as high as $130 million, the analyst’s office says Brown’s figures underestimate the savings in court costs and prison housing and overestimate how much state agencies have spent to implement the law.

The money, by law, is supposed to go into a fund that helps pay for mental health and substance abuse programs, combat truancy and lower dropout rates, along with victim services.

“While the administration’s approach would benefit the General Fund ... it does so at the expense of the programs that receive funding from [the account],” the report said.

Rocky Chavez endorses Duf Sundheim for U.S. Senate

Rocky Chavez, seated left, with George "Duf" Sundheim, middle, and Tom Del Beccaro, right, at a debate Monday night.
(Phil Willon / Los Angeles Times)

Oceanside Assemblyman Rocky Chavez is endorsing Republican candidate George “Duf” Sundheim’s U.S. Senate bid, just days after ending his own candidacy.

“We also need someone who understands the diverse nature of our state and can represent all Californians,” Chavez, a Republican and former Marine colonel, said in a statement released by the Sundheim campaign. “Duf Sundheim is the candidate who not only understands these issues, but has a track record of achievement. That is why I am endorsing him today.”

Chavez’s endorsement snubs Tom Del Beccaro, who is considered the more conservative of the three. Both Del Beccaro and Sundheim are Bay Area attorneys who had served as chairmen of the California Republican Party.

Chavez and Sundheim aligned on several issues, including supporting a “pathway to legal status” for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.

Chavez plans to run for reelection in his Republican-leaning Assembly district, which includes Oceanside, Encinitas and Carlsbad. Other candidates currently in that race include Republicans Phil Graham, the stepson of former Gov. Pete Wilson, and Oceanside City Councilman Jerry Kern.

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Obama tells Southern California donors he’s accomplished 80% of his campaign promises

We had a behind-the-scenes perch for President Obama’s fundraisers in Hancock Park on Thursday.

Find out who was there, what John Legend sang and what Obama had to say about Los Angeles.

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Gov. Jerry Brown opposes $9-billion school bond

Gov. Jerry Brown has come out against a $9-billion school bond measure that will go before voters in November, erecting a political hurdle for advocates of new spending on school construction.

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Rep. Duncan Hunter vapes on Capitol Hill to protest e-cigarette plane ban

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) took a drag off his pocket vaporizer during a Capitol Hill hearing Thursday to protest a proposed ban of electronic cigarettes on airplanes.

“So, this is called a -- this is called a vaporizer,” Hunter said, holding back a smile after blowing out a dramatic white cloud.

“There is no burning. There is nothing noxious about this whatsoever,” Hunter went on to say. “This has helped thousands of people quit smoking. It’s helped me quit smoking.”

The room broke out in giggles after the stunt but Hunter is deadly serious when it comes to opposing efforts to restrict the use of e-cigarettes. Hunter wrote a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) last month, saying, “E-cigarettes are a suitable alternative to cigarettes, and they could very well save my life.”

Hunter’s vaping didn’t save the day for e-cigarette smokers. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee adopted the amendment by a 33-26 vote, USA Today reported.

Hunter is so well known around Washington for vaping that other members of Congress unfamiliar with the devices have asked to try his out, said Hunter’s chief of staff, Joe Kasper. Hunter always lets them take a puff.

“He makes no effort to conceal it,” Kasper said. “People know him as somebody who not only vapes but is a huge proponent.”

Hunter recently toured the facilities of a Los Angeles-based company, Vaporcade, that sells a combination cellphone vaporizer called the Jupiter, he said.

Kasper said Hunter was working on legislation to create a regulatory framework for e-cigarettes.

The Food and Drug Administration has reported that the potential health effects of electronic cigarettes have not been fully studied.

The eagle has landed

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No go on No Fly gun bill

Obama offers first reaction to Supreme Court climate decision at Bay Area fundraiser

President Obama told Democratic donors in the Bay Area, “don’t despair” over a Supreme Court decision to stay a case involving his Environmental Protection Agency’s clean power initiative.

“The Supreme Court did something unusual this week. The centerpiece of our climate action plan involves working with states like California to come up with a strategy for reducing their carbon emissions,” the president said as he attended a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.

The remarks, his first on the topic since the ruling earlier this week, were captured by a reporter allowed into the fundraiser for a portion of Obama’s talk with donors at Steve Westly’s home in Atherton.

Obama explained his administration’s strategy comes under the Clean Air Act, “which the Supreme Court says requires the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions if we can show, as science has clearly shown, damage to public health.”

The president said his team is “very confident we are on strong legal footing here.”

“One of reasons I want to talk about this is because in the last couple of days I’ve heard people say, ‘The Supreme Court struck down the clean power plant rule. That’s not true, so don’t despair people,” Obama said. “This a legal decision that says, ‘Hold on until we review the legality.’ We are very firm in terms of the legal footing here… “

The president called for “investing in the future, not the past” and then went on to give boilerplate fundraising remarks.

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Republicans fundraise off Obama visit

As we’ve been reporting in our Essential Politics newsletter, President Obama is headed to Los Angeles this afternoon to tape with Ellen DeGeneres and attend two Democratic National Committee fundraisers in Hancock Park. John Legend is performing in one of them.

Live in L.A. and worried about the roads? Here’s a list of street closures.

And here’s how California Republicans are preparing.

Gov. Jerry Brown tries to make good on promise to cut oil use in half

(Christina House / For The Times)

Remember that bruising fight over SB 350 and whether the state should slash the petroleum use in half?

It’s back again, this year in the form of Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal.

The budget the governor submitted to the Legislature last month proposed spending a third of the state’s cap-and-trade funds, about $1 billion, on public transit, promoting electric vehicles and other programs, all with the explicit goal of cutting oil use by 50% by 2030. Those dollars were collected through the auction of pollution credits to companies that emit greenhouse gases.

In doing so, the governor’s decision to place such a visible marker could be adding a sizable new wrinkle to budget negotiations this spring in Sacramento.

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Lawmaker proposes aid-in-dying law hotline

Californians with questions about the state’s aid-in-dying law would be able to call a toll-free hotline under a proposal by state Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel).

Monning, a co-author of the new End of Life Option Act, introduced legislation Thursday that would require the California Department of Public Health to establish and operate the hotline.

The new law allows physicians in California to prescribe lethal doses of drugs for use by terminally ill patients who want to hasten their deaths.

“As California moves forward to implement this pioneering law, it is important that there is a resource available to patients, doctors, or anyone who is interested in learning how the new law works,” Monning said in a statement.

The California Medical Assn. recently issued guidelines for people wanting to use the new law, which won’t take effect until 90 days after the end of the current special legislative session on healthcare.

Auditor finds waste, overbilling, forgery by state workers

More than two dozen state employees mishandled or wasted a total of $372,000 through improper expenses, overcharging for time worked, filing false claims and not disclosing outside income, a state audit found Thursday.

State Auditor Elaine Howle detailed the misconduct in a report on whistleblower investigations completed by her office during the last two years.

“Through our investigations, we found misuse of state resources, forgery, false time reporting, violations of financial interests disclosure, and waste of state funds,” Howle wrote to Gov. Jerry Brown in a letter accompanying the report.

Ten cases were detailed in the report, which included the following findings:

-- Four psychiatrists at Patton State Hospital were paid $296,800 for work they did not do as each put in much less than the 40 hours per week they claimed during a one-year period. Some worked as few as 22 hours.

-- A supervising nurse for California Correctional Health Care Services, the agency overseeing prison health care appointed by federal judges, was paid $6,000 more than he was due after he forged military documents and falsely claimed he worked military reservist duties.

-- A psychiatrist at the Department of State Hospitals violated state law by failing to disclose income of $29,800 that he received from a pharmaceutical company.

-- The state wasted $25,600 in taxpayer funds during one year when it charged only eight hours of leave for 12 employees at Porterville Developmental Center who missed scheduled nine-hour or 10-hour workdays.

-- The state Resources Recycling and Recovery office wasted $4,200 on improper use of rental vehicles for state travel by renting from a private firm instead of a state government office.

--The Department of Water Resources wasted taxpayer funds when it improperly reimbursed three employees $4,500 in excess of the allowed amount for training they received.

On the ‘short list’ of California GOP contenders for higher office: Kevin Faulconer

(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the only Republican leading one of the nation’s top 10 cities, is a rising star in the California GOP after just two years in office.

Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who was a speechwriter for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, says Faulconer’s on the “short list” of possible Republican candidates for governor in 2018.

So, the Los Angeles Times sat down with the mayor for a brief chat inside San Diego City Hall.

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Congresswoman showcases mass shooting victims ... and she has no plans to let up

On the floor of the U.S. House on Thursday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) read the names of 18 people who died last month in mass shootings.

She plans to make it a habit.

Speier, who was shot five times while on a congressional fact-finding mission into the People’s Temple in Jonestown in 1978, said she will return to the House floor monthly to read the names of mass shooting victims from the previous month. She also plans to create a memorial wall for the victims outside her office.

“I’ve had enough of Congress’ failure to lead,” Speier said.

Lamenting that she didn’t have enough time to read the names of those who were shot but didn’t die, Speier told the stories of the 18 people killed in California, Delaware, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington and other states. Their photos and names will be added to the wall outside her Washington office in the Rayburn House Office Building.

Several members began similar memorial walls outside their congressional offices for military members who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. A handful remain.

“May the dead rest in peace and the wounded recover completely. It’s time, it’s time for Congress to end this bloodshed,” she said.

The day after the horrific attacks in San Bernardino, Speier said she’d boycott the House chamber or stay seated instead of standing for another moment of silence to shooting victims. She said the tributes are hollow because they have not been followed by action from Congress.

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A new leader of state’s Black Caucus

Isadore Hall III takes the oath to join the state Senate in December 2014..
(Associated Press)

State Sen. Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) is taking over the chairmanship of the California Legislative Black Caucus after Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, Sr. (D–Los Angeles) abruptly resigned from the leadership position.

Jones-Sawyer said in a statement that the switch at midnight Friday would allow him to focus on legislative priorities as he seeks reelection.

“We’ve also worked tirelessly to raise awareness and increase the dialogue about the issues affecting our community,” Jones-Sawyer said, “while prioritizing the expansion of representation of our community at all levels of government.”

But Capitol sources said there has been tension over the caucus’ mixed record of success legislatively and the loss of top black staffers in the Legislature.

Hall, who is in a heated battle to win an open congressional seat, said in a statement that his goal is to expand the 12-member caucus in the 120-member Legislature through this year’s elections.

“As chair, I remain resolute in my commitment to expand African American representation in the California Legislature,” and to “promote workforce development and vocational education opportunities” as well as “protect and improve access to high quality preschool for every African American child,” he said.

Hall said other priorities would include increasing high school graduation rates and the number of black students who gain admission to and graduate from California colleges and universities.

Could developmental disability funding be at play in negotiations for tax on healthcare plans?

For more than a year, the state has grappled with how to overhaul a tax on healthcare plans. Now, as Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal winds through the Legislature, there’s another question surfacing: What will the money be spent on?

The proposal got its first public hearing Wednesday. Legislators on the Assembly’s public health panel did not vote on the plan, but did hear a rundown of the complicated system of levies and tax breaks proposed to replace the state’s current tax on managed care organizations, which is set to expire in June.

Revenues from the new tax will help pay for Medi-Cal, state-subsidized healthcare for the poor. But members of both parties have also called for money to fund services for the developmentally disabled.

Assemblywoman Catharine Baker (R-San Ramon) pointedly clarified on Wednesday that the current plan includes “zero funding” for the developmentally disabled.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) said there was “separately work being done to get to a deal” to secure such funding.

The proposal has garnered substantial industry support, ranging from the California Assn. of Health Plans to individual heavyweights such as Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente.

The health plans have historically been vital in attracting the Republican votes necessary to meet the two-thirds threshold for new taxes. Assemblyman Brian Maienschein (R-San Diego) said the number of supporters for the proposal was significant.

Still, he said, “we’re not there yet.” He and Baker were not outwardly hostile to the plan, but stopped short of signaling support.

The Senate will hold its own informational hearing later today. Votes on the proposal will likely be held next week, according to legislative sources.

Second bill proposed to tighten campaign finance and ethics rules for state tax board

Yet another bill has been proposed to tighten ethics and campaign finance standards for the state’s elected tax board.

The latest proposal, made Wednesday by Assemblyman Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma, would close loopholes that have allowed those with business before the panel to benefit the campaigns of members. The loopholes were identified in recent reports by the Los Angeles Times.

Dodd’s AB 1828 would ban political contributions from people and businesses that have appeals cases before the board a year before and after the case is adjudicated.

The bill, like one introduced last month by state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), also would prohibit board members from soliciting donations to nonprofit groups during the same two-year period. Hill’s measure would require board members to recuse themselves from acting on any matter involving a campaign contributor.

“It’s important that the public is given confidence that tax rulings before the Board are based on their merits and absent of the appearance of influence or favoritism,” Dodd said in a statement.

The Times recently reported that Board Chairman Jerome Horton solicited a donation to a charity founded by his wife from SpaceX after voting on a policy that could benefit the firm.

In addition, the newspaper reported that firms got around the $250 limit on contributions by having employees make dozens of $249 contributions or by giving money to a political action committee that then donated to board members.

Ethics agency launches revision of state’s Political Reform Act

(Sacramento Convention & Visitors)

The state’s ethics watchdog agency has launched a yearlong overhaul of California’s law governing campaign finance and lobbying with an eye toward streamlining and simplifying rules that many politicians complain are too complex, the agency’s top official said Wednesday.

Jodi Remke, chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, said the 41-year-old Political Reform Act needs to be updated, in part, to reflect changes in the way special interests try to influence elections and those who are elected.

“It’s impossible to understand,” Remke said of the law in a meeting with The Times’ Sacramento bureau. “If we can really focus on this and clean it up, it would be a huge step forward.”

In a step separate from the Act’s review, Remke said Wednesday that campaign contribution limits will likely be looked at to see whether they are adequate, given that far more money is spent independently from candidates by special interest groups. “Are we chasing our tails talking about contribution limits when that’s not really the game anymore?” she asked.

FPPC officials have long said the law needs to reflect the desire to prevent serious corruption instead of tripping up public officials on relatively minor issues.

“The goal is that we get away from the small, ticky-tacky technical violations so we can focus on the more serious violations,” Remke said. She also said there may be changes to get more people to disclose activity that should be considered as lobbying.

Faster disclosure of information, she said, is hindered by the state’s antiquated Cal-Access campaign finance system, which advocates and elections officials have urged should be overhauled.

Remke said the FPPC is working with UC Berkeley School of Law’s California Constitutional Center and the UC Davis School of Law where students are working on a first draft that then will go through revision by a citizens’ panel before being taken up by the FPPC.

California Democrats ask FTC to stop ‘gay conversion’ therapy

Two Democratic members of California’s congressional delegation say they want the Federal Trade Commission to help stop “gay conversion therapy” targeted toward LGBT youth.

In a letter addressed to the commission, Reps. Jackie Speier (Hillsborough) and Ted Lieu (Torrance) urged the FTC to “take all actions possible” to stop the practice, which they called “unfair, deceptive, and fraudulent.” The letter also was signed by U.S. Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

Conversion therapy puts LGBT children and youth at risk of suicide and substance abuse, the letter said, and “provokes guilt, anxiety, and societal rejection that negatively impacts healthy development of children and youth.”

Programs that aim to convert minors from gay to straight are already illegal in California, thanks to a law Lieu helped pass.

Similar bans have been introduced in Congress, including one by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), but have stalled. The White House has said it supports such a ban, saying conversion therapy “is neither medically nor ethically appropriate.”

Obama gets regular updates on Aliso Canyon leak

President Obama is getting regular updates about the ongoing methane leak in Porter Ranch, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday.

“That is a very serious situation out in California,” Earnest said on Air Force One at the start of a trip that will conclude in California. “I know the president has been updated regularly on this.”

The leaking gas well in Aliso Canyon prompted the evacuation of more than 4,000 homes but could be plugged in the next several days, the Southern California Gas Co. said Tuesday amid a weeks-long saga.

Prompted by questions from Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) at a speech to House Democrats in January, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both committed to push for national gas storage standards to prevent future leaks.

Obama is on his way to California for several political fundraisers, an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and a summit about the Asia Pacific region. A stop in Porter Ranch or at the site of the spill is not on his schedule.

Pot tax proposed

Gun violence initiative eligible for Capitol compromise

The ballot measure backed by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to impose new rules including background checks before buying ammunition now appears eligible for negotiation in the state Capitol -- that is, if either Newsom or legislators are interested.

Newsom tweeted on Tuesday that his initiative had gathered 25% of the voter signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. That’s the threshold set by a 2014 law for legislative hearings on an initiative and could, if all sides agree, result in a compromise instead of a political campaign.

But so far the law that was hailed as major reform of California’s initiative process has produced no legislative hearings or political truces. Newsom’s proposal, drafted with the help of national groups, will be one to watch as it mirrors several prior gun violence proposals in the Legislature.

Legislative Democrats dine with Brown, state leaders

It looks like there was quite the party Tuesday night in downtown Sacramento, as Assembly Democrats gathered with Gov. Jerry Brown at the historic Stanford Mansion.

The gathering wasn’t announced ahead of time, but became pretty obvious once lawmakers opened up their Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts later in the evening.

The private dinner offered legislative Democrats a chance to schmooze with the state’s constitutional officers. And given all statewide officials are Democrats, it was a single-party affair.

L.A. mayor is heading to Nevada to support Clinton

Gov. Jerry Brown criticizes U.S. Supreme Court’s blocking of Obama climate plan

(Michel Euler / Associated Press)

Gov. Jerry Brown wasted little time on Tuesday criticizing the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to block the Obama administration’s carbon pollution limits on power plants.

“As the world gets hotter and closer to irreversible climate change, these justices appear tone-deaf as they fiddle with procedural niceties,” said Brown in a written statement released by his office.

It’s not the first time the governor has come to the defense of the federal effort, launched by President Obama last summer, to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by almost a third over the next decade and a half. In November, California joined 24 other states to formally support the Clean Power Plan in lawsuits brought by West Virginia, Texas, and other states. Brown later called out the leaders in those states for what he called “crass obstructionism.”

The governor was no less pointed in his comments issued on Tuesday.

“This arbitrary roadblock does incalculable damage and undermines America’s climate leadership,” said Brown’s statement on the high court’s action. “But make no mistake, this won’t stop California from continuing to do its part under the Clean Power Plan.”

San Diego mayor still strongly in Marco Rubio’s corner

(Stephen Dunn / Getty Images)

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a co-chairman of Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in California, said before returns came in from New Hampshire he expected his guy to do “very well today.”

“I’ve been around enough to know that in campaigns and debates, you’re going to do great in some, you’re going to wish you did things differently in others,” Faulconer said in an interview. “Every race is a long race. I think he’s very, very well positioned.”

Faulconer is the only Republican mayor representing one of the nation’s 10 largest cities.

Faulconer, considered a rising star in a California Republican Party that is in dire need of one, said Rubio’s life story — he is the son of Cuban immigrants — and inspiring political message will connect with Californians.

“He has a very compelling story, and our job is to get that out,” he said.

The primary is June 7.

Rocky Chavez’s switch to Assembly race sparks Republican turmoil

A Republican who already had devoted time and money to winning a state Assembly seat is not happy with Rocky Chavez’s surprise decision to drop out of the U.S. Senate race and instead run for reelection to his Oceanside district.

Phil Graham, the stepson of former California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, said he never would have entered the race for the 76th Assembly District if he knew Chavez may opt to run again. Chavez, a former Marine colonel, had assured Graham he was all-in for the Senate race, according to a statement Graham’s campaign released Tuesday.

“I took him at his word when he said he was going to bring a Marine’s tenacity to the US Senate campaign, so I was surprised yesterday when I read that he had dropped out,” Graham said in the statement. “I feel I have a lot to offer in Sacramento, but if Rocky hadn’t told me and the rest of California he was committed to the US Senate race, I would not have run for his Assembly seat.”

Graham, an Encinitas executive, said he will spend the next few days talking with his supporters and “considering my options.” He said a number of people are encouraging him to stay in the race.

He raised $355,000 for his campaign in 2015 and had $221,000 in cash on hand at the end of the year. Chavez had $601 in his Assembly campaign account at the end of 2015.

Another Republican in the running, Oceanside City Councilman Jerry Kern, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Kern raised $184,000 and had $138,000 in the bank at the end of the year, state campaign finance records show.

The district includes Oceanside, Encinitas, Carlsbad and the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. Its voter registration leans strongly Republican.

San Diego political consultant John Hoy said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Graham and Kern stay in the race, even though Chavez will have strong support as the incumbent and someone with a military background.

“Any person who has invested that much time and energy and money is going to be reluctant to throw in the towel,” Hoy said.

Rep. Knight asks Congress for Porter Ranch hearing

Crews work on a relief well at the Aliso Canyon facility above the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles
(Dean Musgrove / Associated Press)

Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) asked for a congressional hearing Tuesday on the cause of the Porter Ranch gas leak, which has forced thousands from their homes.

Knight, whose district includes much of the Porter Ranch area, sent a letter to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Railways, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) asking him to examine policy around underground natural gas storage facilities, such as the one in Aliso Canyon that has been leaking since October.

Knight also has asked the committee to consider legislation he sponsored last week that would require the Department of Transportation to set safety standards for natural gas storage facilities that considers the economic effects of the standards.

One of Knight’s opponents for reelection, Democrat Bryan Caforio, has criticized the legislation, saying the freshman lawmaker consulted the energy industry for what the bill should include. Caforio also charges Knight didn’t act quickly enough to respond to the leak.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Porter Ranch) also has filed legislation and pushed President Obama to commit to new agency rules regarding gas storage.

John Chiang ‘strongly leaning’ toward 2018 run for governor

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

California state Treasurer John Chiang told a group of business leaders on Tuesday that he’s nearing a decision on running for governor in 2018 and could wrap up that process as soon as April.

And he hinted at what the decision will be.

“I’m strongly leaning toward it,” he said.

Chiang, 53, would join Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom as early contenders in what could be a crowded field of Democrats vying to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also is considering a run, and others could jump in as the 2018 campaign season kicks into gear.

Prior to being elected treasurer in 2014, Chiang spent eight years as state controller and a stint on the state Board of Equalization.

In brief remarks to reporters after a midday speech to the California Business Roundtable, the Los Angeles Democrat touted his experience in managing the state’s finances during the depths of the recession.

“If you’re going to have the big dreams, you have to finance it,” said Chiang in how his prior experience would play to his advantage in a campaign for governor.

Chiang reported $3.2 million in campaign funds in his most recent state filing, while Newsom reported about $8.4 million on hand.

The treasurer seemed eager to discuss the idea of running for governor, happily fielding the question from the business group after a brief presentation marketed as a speech on public finance.

“I’m almost there,” Chiang told the group.

Backers of 2016 water bond call off campaign

An effort to place a $4.9-billion water bond on the November statewide ballot has officially ended before it began, with supporters saying they’re putting their hopes on the Legislature crafting a bond measure later this year.

“Legislative leadership has expressed an interest in natural resources bonds, and we are committed to working with them to place a measure on the 2016 ballot through the legislative process,” two of the bond’s backers, Jerry Meral of the Natural Heritage Institute and Jay Ziegler of The Nature Conservancy, wrote in a letter to supporters.

Meral had submitted multiple versions of a water bond initiative to elections officials and said in an interview last month that he was waiting to see whether a well-funded campaign could be mobilized for its passage. In the written statement, Meral and Ziegler noted that it may help to allow more of the money from 2014’s water bond, Proposition 1, to be spent first.

But money — the campaign kind in what’s shaping up to be a huge year for ballot initiatives — was also a key factor.

“The cost of gaining a place on this November’s ballot has risen dramatically in the last few weeks,” wrote the two men in their recent letter. “An extraordinary eleven initiatives are in circulation today, with several more about to enter circulation. This has driven the price of [voter] signatures to a very high level.”

Transportation Committee chair wants legislators on bullet train panel

Legislative oversight of California’s high-speed train project could increase under a new proposal to add two legislators to the system’s board of directors.

Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Oakley), who chairs the Assembly’s Transportation Committee, introduced a bill Tuesday that would add one sitting legislator from each house as a non-voting member to the bullet train’s existing nine member governing panel.

“It is the Legislature’s job to act in the interest of California’s residents and participate in conversations about a program of this size and complexity,” Frazier said in a written statement.

Four members of the existing California High Speed Rail Authority board of directors are appointed by legislators, with Gov. Jerry Brown appointing five of the directors.

Frazier’s bill comes at a particularly intense time for the train project. Last month, the agency’s top officials told lawmakers that the project could take longer than expected to complete, though potentially cost less. And while the $68-billion effort has always had critics in Republican circles in Sacramento, more questions are now being raised by Democratic legislators.

Frazier also announced on Tuesday that he’s scheduled an oversight hearing for March 28 on the rail agency’s new business plan.

Managed care tax: where the health plans stand

Yesterday marked one step forward in what has been arduous negotiations to overhaul a tax on healthcare plans to help pay for Medi-Cal: the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown finally revealed its proposal (in the form of two identical bills).

But the proposal still has a high political bar to clear — a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, which requires Republican votes. To sway tax-averse GOP legislators, the opinions of health plans themselves will be crucial.

If they endorse, or don’t vociferously oppose, the proposal, it could assuage Republican worries that the tax package might lead to increased costs for consumers.

Here’s where some healthcare companies have landed so far:

  • The California Assn. of Health Plans, the main trade association for the industry, is still evaluating the proposal. “Having the bill in print allows the process to move forward,” said spokeswoman Nicole Kasabian Evans.
  • Kaiser Permanente is neutral, but struck a positive tone: “From what we’ve seen ... we believe this proposal is a balanced one that will not negatively impact our purchasers or members,” said Amy Thoma, a Kaiser spokeswoman. “We appreciate the efforts of the administration and legislature to ensure this proposal won’t impede our ability to provide high-quality, affordable healthcare to all.”
  • The Local Health Plans of California, an association of 16 not-for-profit plans, backs the measure. Brianna Lierman, the group’s CEO, said the proposal is “fair and meets federal requirements.”
  • Cigna released a letter last week, before the proposal was officially introduced, saying the current structure “creates substantial competitive market advantages for some California plans at the expense of others.” The company remains opposed.

Audience at live radio debate startled by Rocky Chavez’s announcement

Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, seated on left
(Phil Willon / Los Angeles Times )

Assemblyman Rocky Chavez abruptly announced he was dropping out of the U.S. Senate race at the beginning of a live debate among the Republican candidates in San Diego on Monday evening.

Chavez was scheduled to debate GOP rivals George “Duf” Sundhiem and Tom Del Becarro, both Bay Area attorneys. A gasp came from the audience at the KOGO-AM radio station when Chavez opened the debate with his decision.

Chavez, a former Marine colonel, said he decided to bow out to give one of the remaining Republicans in the race a better chance of surviving the June 7 primary and making it to the general election.

Under California’s top-two primary system, the two candidates who receive the most votes in June, regardless of party, will face off in the general election. All recent polls how showed the two Democratic candidates, state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Santa Ana, leading by a wide margin.

Chavez said he will instead run for reelection to his Oceanside Assembly seat.

Carl DeMaio was tipped about Rocky Chavez’s plans

Chavez ends U.S. Senate bid

It’s almost showtime for the GOP Senate debate

Looking for funding for earthquake warning system

In case you missed this story from Rong-Gon Lin II and Rosanna Xia, four state lawmakers are pushing more funding for an earthquake early-warning system that has been stalled by a lack of money.

Two separate bills, SB 438 and AB 1346, were amended Monday to ask that $23 million from the state General Fund be made available.

“There’s no valid reason not to make this relatively small investment in an early-warning system that has the potential to save the lives of Californians,” state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) said in a statement urging others to support the measure.

Hill, Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), who is carrying the bill in the Assembly, are calling for the repeal of a current state law that prohibits spending state general fund dollars on an earthquake early-warning system.

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