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Essential Politics late February archive: Updates from Sacramento

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Welcome to our archived feed of Essential Politics, from Feb. 18 through Feb. 29.

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

Or visit these links if you’re looking for coverage of the California Democratic Party convention or something we wrote the first few weeks of the session.

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

Actor Rob Lowe says a tax board member made an anti-Semitic comment

Hollywood actor Rob Lowe has alleged that the former chairman of the state tax board made an anti-Semitic comment in a meeting held last year with Lowe’s wife and attorney to discuss a dispute over a tax bill.

The meeting was held with Jerome Horton, then the chairman of the state Board of Equalization, to discuss Horton’s opposition to a board decision that reduced a tax bill Lowe owes on the sale of his Montecito mansion for $25 million in 2005.

Lowe’s attorney, Mark Bernsley, warned the board Monday that he is reviewing possible legal action over public comments in which Horton implied Lowe underpaid his taxes.

Lowe, in an email obtained by The Times, told a board staff member that he was offended by comments Horton made to his wife, actress Sheryl Berkoff.

“In the presence of his (Horton’s) staff and my council, in a closed door meeting, he asked my Jewish wife if she ‘Jewed down’ the contractors who built our house,” Lowe wrote. “Appalled, we asked him to explain his comment. He doubled down, saying, ‘C’mon. You know what I’m saying. Did you Jew them down? You must have.’ ”

Horton, who continues to serve as an elected member of the board, disputed the allegations.

“Theirs is a misrepresentation of the facts,” he said. “I am a lifetime supporter of Israel and related issues. This is about them wanting a 12 million (dollar) tax break which I thought they were not entitled to and I stand by my decision.”

Horton was replaced as board chairman last week by Fiona Ma, who said Monday: “I was not at the meeting. However, I believe he should apologize if he made those remarks.”

Lowe said he plans to pursue the matter.

“As the Anti Defamation League’s Man Of The Year two years ago, I will be bringing these statement [sic] to their attention and weighing other options to combat this virulent and unapologetic anti-semitism in the people of California’s Board Of Equalization,” Lowe wrote.

Seth Brysk, central pacific regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, voiced concern Tuesday although he said his group has no independent corroboration about the allegations.

“If the allegations are true, we are disturbed by the comments and their blatant anti-Semitic stereotypes,” Brysk said in a statement. “We have confidence that the Board of Equalization will investigate these claims and take appropriate action.”

Bernsley confirmed in an interview that legal action is being considered. In an email to board staff, the attorney said Horton’s criticism of the settlement of the tax dispute has taken on new meaning.

“Malice is certainly evident from Mr. Horton’s anti-Semitic comments informally reported to the board immediately after they were made at our ex parte meeting with Mr. Horton,” Bernsley wrote.

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Kind words from Gov. Brown on MCO bills

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Leader of congressional Asian group disappointed in Oscars joke

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in a statement Monday that she is disappointed Academy Awards host Chris Rock used Asian children as the punchline of a joke Sunday night.

In Rock’s skit involving the tabulation of Academy Awards votes, he introduced the would-be PriceWaterhouseCoopers representatives overseeing the count.

“They sent us their most dedicated, accurate and hard-working representatives,” he said. “Please welcome Ming Zhu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz.”

Three Asian children dressed in suits and carrying briefcases walked toward center stage. When the crowd barely responded, Rock added: “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.”

The skit drew outrage on social media immediately.

“It is not right to protest the exclusion of one group by making jokes at the expense of another,” Chu said. “While much attention was paid to the way African Americans have been ignored by Hollywood, true diversity must include other minorities as well. It is outrageous that the only role that Asian Americans had at last night’s Oscars was to appear as the butt of a joke.”

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MCO tax package passes Legislature

With a less-close-than-expected decision in the Assembly, the package of bills involved with a new tax on healthcare plans has passed the Legislature.

Here’s how the final decision went down:

For background on what this decision means, check out Melanie Mason’s post from this morning.

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MCO tax stuck in the Assembly for the moment

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The Assembly now is hearing the MCO tax

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MCO tax passes Senate

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One GOP senator jumps on board the MCO tax

The Legislature has begun discussing a new tax on healthcare plans this afternoon. For the measure to pass, according to our Melanie Mason, at least one GOP senator and three Republicans in the Assembly will have to vote yes.

It looks like we already have that one GOP Senate vote.

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MCO 101: A primer on today’s tax vote

The debate over a new tax on healthcare plans — a lengthy, wonky affair that has consumed the Capitol for months — may finally come to a close on Monday.

Legislators are scheduled to vote on a package that will overhaul a tax on managed-care organizations, in an effort to secure more than $1 billion in federal money to help pay for Medi-Cal, the state’s public healthcare program for the poor.

Here’s everything you need to know about the complicated plan known in Sacramento shorthand as the “MCO” tax.

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Torch-passing in San Jose

Outgoing Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins posted this tweet as the torch-passing celebrations continue.

Anthony Rendon officially becomes Speaker on March 7.

Melanie Mason sat down with Atkins for an exit interview. She shared her regrets and triumphs, and what it’s really like working with Gov. Jerry Brown.

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California judge nominated to U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

President Obama has nominated U.S. District Judge Lucy Haeran Koh to serve on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Koh has served as U.S. district judge for the Northern District of California since 2010. The Senate confirmed her then by a 90-0 vote.

Koh has presided over several major Silicon Valley cases, including approving a $415-million settlement in September to end a lengthy legal saga over allegations that several technology companies conspired to prevent their workers from getting better job offers. She also presided over patent battles between Apple and Samsung over the iPhone.

In a statement praising the nomination, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that, if confirmed, Koh would be the first Korean American woman to serve on a federal appeals court.

“Lucy Koh has excelled in her role as a District Judge for the Northern District of California, and I’m so pleased she is being nominated to the 9th Circuit,” the California Democrat said in the statement.

Rep. Michael Honda (D-San Jose) called Koh “a leading jurist who knows, and deeply understands, the complexities of an emerging body of law that addresses the challenges of Silicon Valley and a new world of technology.”

Koh would replace Judge Harry Pregerson, who at 92, announced plans to step down over the summer.

Koh graduated from Harvard Law School in 1993 and worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Department of Justice before serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Central District of California from 1997 to 2000.

In private practice, she worked as a senior associate in the Palo Alto office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and as a partner in the Palo Alto office of McDermott Will & Emery LLP.

In 2008, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her to the California Superior Court for Santa Clara County.

Koh is married to California Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar.

“Judge Lucy Haeran Koh has distinguished herself as a first-rate jurist with unflagging integrity and evenhandedness. I am grateful for her service to the state of California and look forward to adding her considerable wisdom and experience to the Ninth Circuit Court,”

President Obama in a statement on her nomination.

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Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez sides with Apple in iPhone dispute with FBI

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, on Thursday said she supports Apple’s decision to fight a federal court order to unlock the iPhone of a terrorist involved in the deadly attack in San Bernardino in December.

Sanchez, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and House Homeland Security Committee, said the legal fight raises complex issues that Congress, not the courts, is better equipped to investigate.

“I fully support Apple’s decision to fight the court order through the judicial process AND I believe Congress must address the broader policy issues raised by this case,” Sanchez said in a statement released Thursday evening.

The congresswoman questioned whether compelling Apple to open a “backdoor” into the terrorist’s encrypted cellphone would create vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers as well as “hostile governments and even ISIS itself.”

“If we can order Apple to create a backdoor, what happens when China does the same?” Sanchez said.

Her statement comes a day after state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, her top rival Democrat in the Senate race, told reporters that she was not going to pick sides in the dispute between Apple and the federal government.

“We want law enforcement to have access to the material that we need to be able to save lives ... but the issue is also what we are going to do in terms of policy going forward,” Harris said, according to the Associated Press.

The federal court order requires Apple to write new software to allow FBI agents to circumvent the phone’s security features. The phone belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of two assailants in the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino that killed 14 people.

Last week, Sanchez also addressed the Apple iPhone dispute during a campaign event in Northern California.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, she appeared to suggest that Apple could open the iPhone without creating a backdoor on other phones:

“We have to respect individual privacy. No one can come and search your house without getting a court supported warrant. Likewise, the government cannot peek into people’s phones. The answer is that Apple can open this one phone for the information without giving the government a backdoor to everyone’s phone.”

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Brown asks California Supreme Court to greenlight parole initiative

Less than 24 hours after a judge blocked his ballot initiative on overhauling prison parole, Gov. Jerry Brown has asked the California Supreme Court to intervene.

Brown formally filed his appeal with the state’s highest court on Thursday afternoon. The appeal is an emergency petition, the governor’s only chance to quickly get his proposed ballot measure cleared for gathering voter signatures.

On Wednesday, a Sacramento judge ruled Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris had improperly allowed Brown to add amendments in late January -- provisions to revamp the rules for granting parole to some prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes -- to an existing initiative that dealt with juvenile justice.

Judge Shellyanne Chang said that the 2014 state law allowing amendments to be made to pending initiatives also was designed to allow for public comment. Brown’s changes were made after the public comment period ended.

It’s unclear when the state Supreme Court will act. Political consultants who specialize in ballot initiatives have said any measure aimed for the Nov. 8 election will risk missing the ballot if its signatures aren’t turned in to elections officials by early May.

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Best way to increase voter turnout? Elections officials trade notes in L.A.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla was joined by his counterparts from Colorado and Oregon on Thursday to discuss ways to get more voters to the polls.

Padilla credited moves in both states with helping inspire election law changes in California.

The state’s new “motor voter” law, for example, took cues from a similar measure signed into law in Oregon last year.

And a pending proposal, SB 450, which would automatically mail a ballot to every registered voter in the state and set up centralized voting centers in each county, drew inspiration from similar systems in Colorado, Padilla added.

Padilla said it’s up to California, which has a much larger, diverse population, to prove that it can implement such policies effectively.

“If we can do it here, there’s no longer any excuse for any other state in the nation to say they can’t do it,” Padilla said after the event.

Discussions about how to boost voter turnout have been especially urgent in Los Angeles County, which saw only 10% of voters turn out to the polls for a municipal election last March.

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House Republican tries to raise cash with Supreme Court warning

In a campaign fundraising email Thursday, Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) referenced the dispute about filling the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

“In the wake of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s tragic death, President Obama has wasted little time before announcing that he is determined to force the issue and push for a replacement,” it reads. “That’s really too bad -- if not, unfortunately, surprising. Barack Obama is determined to put his stamp on the Supreme Court once more -- with yet another radical liberal judicial activist appointment.”

The Senate considers and votes on presidential nominations, and House members have no say. Senate Republicans have vowed that they will not consider any nominee for the Supreme Court that Obama puts forth.

It’s been more than a hundred years since an opposition party has approved a president’s nominee during an election year -- for good reason. That’s why I will oppose any new Obama nomination -- and I stand strong in support of my Republican colleagues in the Senate who are determined to resist President Obama’s assault on the bench. But my efforts on Capitol Hill will only continue if I successfully defend my seat in Congress, and with time running out in February, I’ve just learned from my campaign team that we’re more than $3,500 short of our crucial February fundraising goal.

Rep. Mimi Walters

She isn’t the first member to raise funds off the fight.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Patti Murray (D-Wash.) each sent out pitches while the body of the late justice was lying in repose in the Supreme Court building.

Walters, a freshman who represents California’s 45th District, raised $972,888 in 2015 and had $728,085 in cash on hand at the end of the year, according to her most recent campaign finance report.

Her Republican primary-election opponent, Mission Viejo Mayor Pro Tem Gregory Raths, and Robert Edmund Lauten of Brea, an independent, haven’t yet filed financial reports with the Federal Election Commission.

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Female legislators press incoming speaker for equal representation in leadership roles

When Assemblyman Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) is sworn in as speaker on March 7, he’s expected to shake up committee chairmanships and other leadership roles.

The women in his Democratic caucus want to make sure they’re well positioned to get those plum roles.

Nearly all female Democratic Assembly members have signed onto a letter to Rendon urging him to promote a more equal gender balance in committee assignments.

Women make up 25% of the state Legislature. In the Assembly, there are 19 women: 11 Democrats and 8 Republicans.

Of the 31 standing Assembly committees, women currently chair four of them. Three committees have no female legislators -- from either party.

“Women are poorly represented on committees that provide the kind of significant fundraising opportunities that allow for the advancement of careers,” the letter reads.

The lawmakers request that Rendon ensure half of the committee chair posts are held by women, that every committee have an equal number of women and men, and that women are “adequately represented” in other leadership roles.

The letter notes that last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed women to half of his Cabinet posts. Asked the reason, he said: “Because it’s 2015.”

Ten Democratic assemblywomen signed the letter: Susan Bonilla (Concord), Cheryl Brown (San Bernardino), Autumn Burke (Marina Del Rey), Nora Campos (San Jose), Susan Eggman (Stockton), Cristina Garcia (Bell Gardens), Lorena Gonzalez (San Diego), Jacqui Irwin (Thousand Oaks), Patty Lopez (San Fernando) and Shirley Weber (San Diego).

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Senate clears resolution honoring Ronald Reagan

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Congressional panel pushes pipeline safety agency on Porter Ranch leak

The head of the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said Thursday that the federal government needs to do more to regulate underground gas storage facilities such as the one located near Porter Ranch that leaked for more than 100 days.

The agency’s administrator, Marie Therese Dominguez, told the House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials that the agency doesn’t have the authority to make emergency rules for safety reasons, like other safety agencies do. Instead, it has to go through a process that can take more than two years.

“We have to go through the rule-making process,” Dominguez said.

In the meantime, the agency encouraged the industry earlier this month to follow gas storage standards set by the American Petroleum Institute. Lawmakers representing Porter Ranch and the surrounding area have said that is not good enough.

Congress could give the agency emergency authority.

Representatives of the American Gas Assn. and the Interstate Natural Gas Assn. of America told the committee that the industry supported national underground safety standards, and would support putting the Petroleum Institute standards into law.

Pipeline Safety Trust Executive Director Carl Weimer called those standards a good first step.

“We’d like to see a regular rulemaking that would open it up,” Weimer said.

Dominguez, who was picked to lead the agency in June, recently visited the Aliso Canyon site with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

“It’s very clear that there is a role for the federal government to play in terms of regulating storage,” she said. “Currently our authority stops at the well. We don’t go down-hole at all.”

Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Porter Ranch) and Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) have filed separate legislation that would require the agency to set and enforce underground gas storage standards. Aspects of their plans are expected to be included in legislation reauthorizing the Transportation Department’s Pipeline Safety Program.

Knight said that before it was capped last week, the gas leaking from Aliso Canyon could have filled the Empire State Building every day, and while the facility is one of the largest in the country, there are at least 35 states with similar underground storage facilities.

“This has taken four months to fix. We are nowhere near the end of this tragedy,” he said. “There should be some sort of standards. This is something we never want to see again.”

Sherman said that while some of his Porter Ranch neighbors evacuated, the congressman installed filters and stayed put. He has prodded President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for commitments that the pipeline safety administration will act.

“The pipes are eligible for Social Security, that’s how old they are,” he said. “This incident needs to be an alarm clock that goes off, a wake-up call. And it needs to be heard here in Washington, 3,000 miles away.”

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) has pushed for higher pipeline standards since a gas pipeline exploded in her district in 2010, killing eight people in San Bruno. She told the committee she still can’t tell the families that regulations are better.

“Shame on us too, for not yanking the funding for that agency until they get their act together,” she said. “We need [it] to be a strong voice for safety, not a toothless tiger.”

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Harris will appeal ruling against parole initiative

A representative of Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris says an appeal will be filed in hopes of overturning a judge’s ruling late Wednesday that could delay -- or derail -- the parole and juvenile justice initiative promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The ruling by the Sacramento judge that Harris failed to follow a 2014 law that changed the initiative process means Brown’s initiative cannot be circulated for voter signatures without further vetting.

And that means one of two big political aftershocks are in store. Either the cost of quickly gathering signatures could be much higher than expected, or Brown and his allies may actually miss the deadline to qualify for the November ballot.

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Speaker Atkins meets with ousted coastal agency leader

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Brown parole initiative blocked

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Father of slain UC Santa Barbara student urges voters to fight ‘powerful, well-funded gun lobby’

A memorial to Veronika Weiss and Katie Cooper outside their sorority house in Isla Vista following the 2014 rampage.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The father of a UC Santa Barbara student killed in a 2014 shooting rampage in Isla Vista is urging voters to support Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed gun control initiative, saying he wants to spare other parents from the same tragedy.

Bob Weiss, in an email sent out Wednesday by Newsom’s “Safety for All” campaign, urged potential supporters to donate to the effort in order defeat the “powerful, well-funded gun lobby.”

“My daughter Veronika was a star athlete, a math wiz, the gregarious social organizer for her circle of friends. Wise beyond her years, Veronika was the person I often found myself going to for advice,” Weiss wrote in the fundraising plea. “Today would have been her 21st birthday. Not a day passes when I don’t wonder: How would she have used all of these amazing gifts out in the world?”

On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger fatally stabbed his roommates in their apartment. Then he went on a rampage, striking seven people with his car and shooting students on the streets of the college town. Weiss was one of three UCSB students slain by gunfire. Fourteen others were wounded.

The initiative proposed by Newsom, who is running for governor in 2018, would require background checks for ammunition purchases and ban possession of large-capacity magazines. To qualify it for the November ballot, Newsom must get petition signatures from 365,880 registered voters in the state. So far, proponents have collected about 25% of what they need.

Last week, opponents of Newsom’s initiative launched a campaign to defeat the proposed measure, accusing the Democrat of “shamelessly exploiting” the San Bernardino terrorist attack to win support for the measure and advance his campaign for governor.

The opposition effort is supported, in part, by the California Rifle & Pistol Assn.

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Officially running for the U.S. Senate

California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris walked out of the Los Angeles County Registrar’s Office in Norwalk this morning as an official U.S. Senate candidate.

Though she announced she is running more than a year ago, Harris still had to submit the proper paperwork to declare her bid to succeed the retiring Barbara Boxer.

She arrived in Norwalk in the late morning with her husband, Los Angeles attorney Douglas Emhoff, and a throng of reporters.

Harris, who has lived in the Bay Area for most of her adult life, this week also registered to vote in Los Angeles, her new home.

Senate candidates have until mid-March to declare. Harris’ top Democratic rival in the race, Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County, has not yet filed.

The top Republican candidates include Tom Del Beccaro and George “Duf” Sundheim. Both are Bay Area attorneys and former chairmen of the California Republican Party.

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Healthcare tax vote delayed in Legislature

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Pay off pension debt of judges, say analysts

As tax revenues continue to generally outpace projections, lawmakers find themselves in the unusual situation of being able to pay off debt. And a new report suggests real savings could be found by targeting the pension promises made to some veteran state judges.

On Wednesday, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released its review of Gov. Jerry Brown’s blueprint for $1.6-billion in debt payments under 2014’s Proposition 2. The voter-approved ballot measure mandates unexpected tax dollars to be diverted to either a reserve fund or to paying accumulated debt.

Brown’s proposed state budget would set aside most of the roughly $1.6 billion in debt payments to replenish special budget funds that were raided during the recession. But the LAO report argues it could be more frugal to target a pension fund for judges appointed prior to Nov. 9, 2014.

A five-year effort to earmark some of the Proposition 2 money for those judicial pensions, the LAO report estimates, could save the state $2 billion in the future.

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Harris makes it official for 2016

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A new member of our team

You’ll soon be seeing Liam Dillon‘s name in this space. He’s our newest member of the Sacramento bureau.

Get to know our political team.

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Fewer ‘bad’ bills under new term limits, legislator says

As newly revised term limits for legislators start to sink in, one of those elected under the new rules says it may mean fewer bills narrowly focused on powerful interest groups.

“You’re not going to see as much recycled, bad legislation,” said Assemblyman Matt Dababneh (D-Encino) in an interview with The Times’ Sacramento bureau on Wednesday morning.

Dababneh, who won his job in a special election in the fall of 2013, said the looser term limits approved by voters in 2012 mean that lobbyists and their interest group backers no longer can simply wait for new members of the Legislature to be elected.

“You can’t wait a member out anymore,” he said.

The Democrat chairs the Assembly’s Banking and Finance Committee and said his focus in 2016 will be on efforts to increase financial literacy for young Californians and to examine the rules governing pay-day lending. Both, Dababneh pointed out, are issues that can only be tackled by a legislator eligible to serve up to 12 years in a single house.

“I can look at this from a multi-prong approach,” he said.

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Yee sentenced to five years on corruption charges

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

A federal district judge sentenced former state Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, to five years in prison Wednesday for trading political favors for campaign contributions. Yee was also fined $20,000.

Yee admitted in a plea deal that he was part of a racketeering conspiracy that involved exchanging official acts for money, conspiring to traffic in weapons and engaging in money laundering. Specifically, Lee promised an undercover FBI agent favors in return for campaign contributions.

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Hunter becomes first member of Congress to endorse Trump

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) has become the first member of Congress to endorse real estate mogul Donald Trump.

Hunter had initially endorsed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a family friend, and took several weeks after Huckabee ended his bid before announcing his support for Trump.

Hunter hinted to Politico that he might not be the only Trump supporter in Congress.

“They just have to come out of the closet, so to speak,” he said.

Who does your representative support? Check our handy tracker.

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Denham challenger gets boost from Democratic leader

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) swung through California last week, hitting campaign events for a handful of Democrats in competitive congressional races.

At the top of his itinerary was a reception for Michael Eggman, an almond farmer who’s running against Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock). Eggman, brother of State Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, lost to Denham in 2014 and has been added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” list of emerging races.

Hoyer also attended fundraisers for Reps. Jim Costa (Fresno), Scott Peters (San Diego) and Juan Vargas (San Diego), as well as candidate Jimmy Panetta, who’s running for retiring Democratic Rep. Sam Farr’s seat in Monterey County.

Hoyer’s Ameripac has already contributed money to several races this cycle, including more than $10,000 to Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove, $10,000 to Rep. Pete Aguilar (Redlands) who is facing two Republican challengers, and Rep. Julia Brownley (Westlake Village) who won reelection by less than 2 percentage points in 2014.

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Boxer, Feinstein rip Republicans over Supreme Court vacancy

California’s Democratic senators said Tuesday they were stunned that Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans won’t hold a hearing or a vote on a potential President Obama Supreme Court nominee.

“I don’t know where the Republicans have come up with the notion that this is the right thing to do,” Sen. Barbara Boxer said in a blistering speech on the Senate floor.

After Republican members of the committee signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stating their intent, Boxer took to the floor with a poster of Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution. She argued the document doesn’t say lame-duck presidents don’t get to make appointments.

“Nowhere in the Constitution does it say it is too late,” she said. “Where in this does it say ‘except in election years?’”

The court this term will rule on cases involving immigration, access to women’s health services, affirmative action and voting rights. With eight sitting justices, a tie — or 4-4 decision — leaves the lower court’s decision in place.

“The Supreme Court is the last stop on the justice train,” Boxer said. “A Supreme Court with eight justices is not a functioning court.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the president’s nominee was entitled to a timely hearing and vote.

“Since the Judiciary Committee began holding hearings on Supreme Court nominees in 1916, a nominee has never been denied a hearing. To do so would be unprecedented and do serious damage to the Senate as an institution,” Feinstein said in a statement.

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Kamala Harris is now, officially, an Angeleno

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Californians seek political thrills

With California’s presidential primary still months away, hundreds of Golden State warriors descended upon Nevada in hopes of making a tangible impact on the race next door.

There’s Yolanda Gonzalez of Chino Hills, who has awoken at 4 a.m. nearly every Saturday for the past two months to make the journey to Las Vegas to canvass the streets for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

There was a carful of hopeful millennials, who were looking to change some minds in the Silver State -- after their chaotic, 8.5-hour car ride.

Then there’s Amy Rao and her group of high-profile Bay Area-based Clinton supporters who call themselves “California Travelers.”

We took a road trip ahead of the Democratic caucuses to tell their stories.

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Humor in the house

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Bill would outlaw annual, special-interest funded Maui trip for legislators

Every year, up to two dozen state legislators fly to Maui for a conference hosted by a nonprofit funded by special interests, but Assemblywoman Patty López (D-San Fernando) thinks the junkets look bad and should be outlawed.

The Independent Voter Project pays for the conference and part of lawmakers’ travel expenses out of an account funded by donors including Occidental Petroleum Corp., the Western States Petroleum Assn., Eli Lilly & Co., tobacco company Altria and the state prison guards union.

López, who defeated Democratic incumbent Raul Bocanegra two years ago, has introduced a bill that would forbid nonprofit groups from paying for travel, lodging and other associated expenses. Similar, less restrictive bills, have had problems getting support.

“I do not agree with the current loophole that allows nonprofits to pay for travel to places like Maui so legislators can ‘relax’ with lobbyists,” Lopez said in a statement.

“My neighbors are shocked when they hear about these trips, and they say the same thing to me every time: ‘If our elected officials want to learn about the issues, they should come and visit the district and listen to what we have to say. They’re not going to learn anything by golfing with lobbyists in Maui,’ ” López said.

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Yosemite Park trademark battle prompts new bill

As of March 1, several Yosemite Park landmarks, including the Ahwahnee Hotel and Curry Village, will have new names, the result of a trademark spat between the federal government and the park’s outgoing operator.

Now, legislators want to ensure that a similar issue couldn’t come up in California state parks.

“The locales of Yosemite Park are treasured by people,” said Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova). “We have generations of people who have grown up with them. So the fact that a trademark dispute in a heritage park could force the renaming is just appalling to me.”

Cooley, along with Assemblymen Adam Gray (D-Merced) and Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals), is introducing a measure that would prohibit concessionaires from trademarking a name associated with a state park. The bill, AB 2249, also says that a history of such trademark claims would disqualify bidders from getting future concessions contracts.

Gray, who said the Yosemite naming fracas was “offensive,” said the measure aims to ensure that such a dispute “will not happen in California in relation to state parks going forward.”

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California Republican Party falls, independents rise in latest voter-registration report

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San Diego congressman heads to Flint, Mich.

U.S. Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) is talking about the ongoing water crisis with residents and business owners in Flint, Mich., today.

The congressional fact-finding trip is the second organized by Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) since news broke that thousands of children were exposed to elevated lead levels after the city began using the corrosive Flint River as its water supply.

Peters, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Commmittee, and three other members are scheduled to hear about the federal response and visit a water distribution facility.

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Cal State professor nominated to Indian Education Council

President Obama has nominated a Cal State San Marcos associate professor to serve on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education.

Joely Proudfit has been director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center since 2009 and chairwoman of the university’s American Indian Studies Department since 2015.

The council advises the U.S. Secretary of Education on funding and administration for schools and educational programs benefiting Native American children or adults.

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Tricky politics ahead for bullet train and more in latest politics podcast

It was one of the biggest developments in recent memory for the ongoing effort to build California’s high-speed rail system: a decision to scrap the southbound route as the first route and focus instead on the north.

Our latest episode of the California Politics Podcast takes a closer look at the tricky politics of the bullet train effort from here on out. We also discuss the national buzz that descended on Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris over the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, and we offer a quick rundown of the most likely November statewide ballot measures.

(And since our taping, we’ve realized that there are two other propositions -- on drug pricing and the adult film industry -- that we somehow missed!)

You can sign up for the weekly podcast for free on iTunes.

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Sen. Feinstein rips Apple over refusal to cooperate in San Bernardino terrorist investigation

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday criticized Apple for refusing a court order to unlock the smartphone of a terrorist involved in December’s deadly attack in San Bernardino.

“Apple is not above the laws of the United States. Nor should anyone or any company be above the laws,” Feinstein said. “I understand Apple’s motivation. But I think it’s a mistake.”

Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, made the comments during a Sacramento event hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California.

California’s senior senator urged Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook to reconsider his challenge to the court order demanding the company’s help.

The FBI wants Apple to unlock the Apple iPhone 5C used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in the San Bernardino attack.

Cook has vowed to fight the order, saying technology providers should be able to protect users’ data. Feinstein said that is not a good enough reason to defy a court order to cooperate.

“We don’t know whether that couple are what we would call lone wolves .. or whether they are part of some cell, planted here, developing here, with more people connected. And there’s where the iPhone comes in,” Feinstein said.

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Apple is not above the law, says Sen. Dianne Feinstein

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Lawmaker proposes new rules for legislative vacancies

Inspired by a recent string of legislators departing their posts mid-term for lucrative government affairs jobs, Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez wants to revamp the rules governing vacant legislative seats.

Gomez, a Democrat from Echo Park, has introduced a constitutional amendment, ACA 9, that would do away with special elections to fill empty seats. Instead, Gomez proposes allowing the governor to appoint someone to finish the term. The appointee would be chosen from a list of three contenders nominated by party, local and elected officials.

“Californians should not have to pay for costly special elections when precedent allows for gubernatorial appointments to fill other public vacancies,” Gomez said in a statement. “That’s why I’ve introduced ACA 9 to create a transparent appointment process to save millions of dollars and allow our state to focus resources on the issues and causes important to our residents.”

The issue has been in the news lately, with Fresno county officials estimating it will cost around $500,000 to run an election to fill the seat of former Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), who abruptly resigned last year to take a government relations job with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

The Gomez proposal also would change so-called “revolving door” laws that limit when former legislators can take jobs as lobbyists. Currently, lawmakers are prohibited from lobbying for one year after they leave office; Gomez’s measure would extend that prohibition to one year from when the person’s term would have expired.

Because Gomez’s measure would amend the state constitution, it would need a two-thirds vote to pass, plus approval from the voters.

Another measure introduced today, AB 2284 by Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), would require legislators who resign mid-term to pay for the special election to replace them out of leftover campaign funds.

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Group says Gavin Newsom exploiting San Bernardino attacks

The opposition to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed ballot initiative to strengthen gun control was always going to be fierce.

Here’s an early look at some of the lines of criticism the proposal will face.

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First legislative hearing scheduled for November initiative

We now know which ballot initiative will be the first to get its chance at a political compromise in Sacramento, courtesy of a law enacted in 2015.

Legislators have scheduled a March 2 hearing on the ballot measure, filed by a Stockton-area farmer and already qualified for the fall ballot, that would force statewide elections on any revenue bonds in excess of $2 billion.

The initiative would most directly threaten Gov. Jerry Brown’s plans for tunnels to send water to Southern California without passing through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The new law governing the initiative process allows a measure’s backers and the Legislature to craft a compromise and remove the item from the ballot, even after signatures have been gathered and submitted. But it also allows those negotiations to begin early, once an initiative’s backers have gathered at least 25% of the signatures needed to get on the ballot.

And yet, none of the November measures has had its day in a legislative hearing. This one will be the first.

Just why there have been no hearings is unclear. Last month, a Times review of the current political climate concluded that there may not be much appetite for deal making from initiative backers who already have coughed up big bucks to gather signatures.

In all, data reported by the secretary of state’s office show 15 initiatives are eligible for these newly empowered public hearings. As of now, only the one hearing has been scheduled.

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Five races to watch at the Democratic convention

Most of the attention at next weekend’s California Democratic Party convention will be on Vice President Joe Biden’s address and the intrigue between the top Democratic Senate candidates, Rep. Loretta Sanchez and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris.

But in small rooms, the party activists gathered in San Jose for the convention will be doing important work that will set the course of congressional elections across the state.

Democratic delegates will choose their favorite candidates in endorsement caucuses, a minor but important establishment boost in races where every vote matters in the June 7 top-two primary.

Most candidates won their endorsements at even smaller, local gatherings last month. Five contests in competitive territory remain open after the local activists bucked expectations.

Of those, three members of Congress are in the uncomfortable position of walking into the convention without something they might have expected to be perfunctory: full backing from Democrats back home. All three are taking this seriously — and will appear in person next weekend to make their case.

  • Rep. Ami Bera (Elk Grove) has no opponent in the party but he is facing party backlash after voting to restrict the settlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the country and to give President Obama so-called fast-track authority to make a trade deal. He fell short of locking up an endorsement at a vote last month when 26 delegates voted for no endorsement. He should be fine — incumbents only need 50% of the vote to nab the official blessing at the convention.
  • Rep. Mike Honda (San Jose) also fell just short of the 70% of votes he needed to lock up an endorsement at a local vote — with enough delegates either choosing his repeat rival Ro Khanna or opting for no endorsement. He’ll attend the convention — held not far from where he lives — to appeal to the delegates.
  • Rep. Grace Napolitano (Norwalk) is being challenged by Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (West Covina). She got 62% of delegate votes.

Also making waves are the endorsement fights in seats held by Republicans.

  • In the 25th District represented by Republican Rep. Steve Knight (Lancaster), two Democrats are squaring off. LAPD Lt. Lou Vince cleared 70% of delegate votes last month while attorney Bryan Caforio got six votes and three voted for no endorsement. But 11 delegates objected to the vote, sending it to the convention. One candidate will need 65% of delegate votes to earn official support.
  • In the 21st District, Democrats are working to oust Rep. David Valadao (Hanford). Fowler City Councilman Daniel T. Parra cleared the threshold but 15 delegates filed objections. That gives lawyer Emilio Huerta -- who entered the race in January -- another shot to win the nomination.

Our team will be covering the convention in this space, so stay tuned.

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Lesislator seeks brain-injury testing for student athletes

A Bay Area legislator has introduced legislation to require that high school athletes undergo testing that could ultimately reveal brain injuries linked to their sports participation.

The bill by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D-South San Francisco) would require neurocognitive testing in student athletes before their seasons begin and after their seasons have ended. The goal, Mullin said in a news release on Thursday, would be to measure the effects from a full season of play.

“I think it’s time for us to move past the old adage of ‘just shake it off’ and seriously address the potential long-term impact of head injuries,” he said.

The bill is just one of several attempts in recent years to address the dangers of concussions sustained by student athletes. In 2012 and 2013, bills were signed into law requiring students with head injuries to be sidelined until cleared by a licensed healthcare provider.

Mullin said his bill was inspired by a 2015 San Mateo County grand jury report that recommended not only the before-and-after testing, but a database of all student athlete head injuries.

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