Here’s how California’s legislature dealt with the 10 biggest issues this session


California lawmakers weighed scores of bills in the last weeks of the legislative session. We followed 10 of the biggest issues closely, including an effort to respond to a former Stanford swimmer’s six-month jail sentence for sexual assault, an attempt to make ride hailing easier and safer, and an effort to legalize Internet poker. Check our Essential Politics news feed for in-the-moment updates on news from Sacramento.

Marijuana | Sex crimes | Public utilities | Prescription drugs | Coastal Commission | Internet poker | Affordable housing | Ridesharing | Climate change | Elections

Changing how the California Coastal Commission does business

What the legislation would do: Two bills take differing approaches with regard to reforming the California Coastal Commission.

The bills include:

• AB 2002: Would declare anyone who uses “ex parte” meetings with commissioners to be registered as a lobbyist and bans the private meetings within 24 hours of commission action.

• SB 1190: Would completely banex parte private meetings held with members of the commission and is the one environmentalists are championing as a game changer in how the agency does business.

The latest: Both bills were killed on the final day of the legislative session. SB 1190 earned only 15 votes in the Assembly, with several Democrats arguing that the “ex parte” ban went too far. Some members of the Assembly criticized the coastal agency’s attorneys for late correspondence, taking issue with amendments that were made to AB 2002 that failed to clear the state Senate in time — and it was unclear whether the bill was unpopular or whether it fell victim to private disagreements among Democrats on other unrelated legislation.

Back story: The February dismissal of Charles Lester as executive director of the California Coastal Commission sparked a series of legislative efforts to change the way the commission does business — with a special focus on what kind of access, if any, groups with business pending before the agency should have to privately meet with the commissioners. Environmental groups and editorial writers have demanded major changes, alleging undue influence from those who seek to build new coastal development projects. Supporters were especially angry when the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown released an analysis in July saying that SB 1190 would impose an extra cost for the agency to do its business — suspecting it was an attempt to quietly kill the bill by making it too expensive.


Overhauling the embattled Public Utilities Commission

What the legislation would do: The scandal-ridden Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the state’s electric and gas utilities alongside other major industries, would see an overhaul designed to boost outside oversight and transparency.

AB 2903: This is the main bill that includes most of the PUC reforms, including provisions to send regulation of the ride-hailing industry, limousines and other forms of transportation to different agencies.

AB 2168: This bill would require PUC audits of gas and electric companies to be posted online.

SB 215: This bill would tighten up rules regarding disclosure and the ability of regulated industries to communicate with the agency.

SB 512: This legislation includes a number of measures designed to increase the agency’s transparency, including allowing the PUC to expand outside of its traditional headquarters in San Francisco and adding performance metrics for top leadership.

The latest: Three measures, AB 2168, SB 215 and SB 512, passed the Legislature. But the main bill, AB 2903, surprisingly didn’t even get a vote. Backers of the legislation are floating a ballot measure in the wake of the failure.

Back story: The PUC has faced significant criticism over its handling of the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, the closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant and last year’s Aliso Canyon gas leak. Brown and legislators have tussled in recent years over reform efforts, given that the agency is part of state government’s powerful executive branch.


Trying to make voting easier and more accessible

What the legislation would do: While several bills would change the way Californians vote, one proposal is really in the spotlight.

SB 450 would gradually move Californians to casting more ballots cast by mail and would use “vote centers” placed in shopping districts and locations that supporters believe are more convenient than traditional polling places. The vote centers would be open prior to election day, and while counties would not be required to join into the new system, most would have the option, starting in 2020. Most counties would also mail a ballot to every single voter, though Los Angeles County would be exempt from that requirement.

Other notable bills would make it easier for vote-by-mail ballots to be collected by a single person (AB 1921) and for voters whose ballot wasn’t counted to find out why (AB 2089).

The latest: All three of these bills are now on Gov. Brown’s desk. SB 450 and AB 2809 both were sent to Gov. Brown on Aug. 29 on bipartisan votes. AB 1921 passed on a Democrats-only vote in the Assembly on Aug. 30.

Back story: There are really three big motivations behind SB 450. First is the troubling low turnout of Californians in recent elections. Second is the trend in the state toward vote by mail, as more than half of registered voters have opted out of the traditional polling place. And finally, the idea of vote centers comes from Colorado, where a similar system is touted as having boosted turnout.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla and registrars from most California counties are for it. A group called the Election Integrity Project warns that voting by mail is less secure than casting a ballot at a polling place. Meantime, other groups sought unsuccessfully to add an amendment so that all of those ballots sent by mail include prepaid return postage. They’re also asking for a delay in full implementation until 2022.


Major adjustments to climate change law

What the legislation will do: A handful of bills were introduced to make major changes to the state’s decade-old law that requires greenhouse gas levels in California to be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020.

• SB 32: Require greenhouse gas emissions to be 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, a more aggressive set of mandates than those established by California’s landmark climate change law, AB 32, enacted in 2006.

• AB 197: Require new oversight of the state’s Air Resources Board, and require future rules to be designed with an eye toward the impact on low-income communities.

The latest: After fierce lobbying from clean energy companies and environmental activists, lawmakers gave their final stamp of approval to both measures. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign the legislation, a significant victory for supporters after it appeared unlikely that the issue would gain traction in the final month of the legislative session. More steps may be pursued next year to safeguard cap-and-trade from a lawsuit that claims the program is an unconstitutional tax.

Back story: Existing law set a 2020 target for reducing emissions to 1990 levels. Questions over whether the state’s programs, including cap and trade, could continue past that deadline led to a scramble for new legislation. The oil industry and some manufacturers have opposed new regulations, but advocates were able to convince enough Democrats and even a handful of Republicans to back the measures.

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The punishment of sex crimes against women and minors

What the legislation would do: A number of California bills proposed this session seek to enhance punishment and repercussions for those who commit sex crimes, particularly against women and minors.

The bills include:

• AB 2888, AB 701 and AB 29: In response to the Stanford sexual assault case, these bills would implement a new mandatory punishment for the crime of rape or expand the existing law so that all forms of nonconsensual sexual assault crimes may be considered rape.

The latest: AB 2888 and AB 701 have been sent to the governor’s desk. AB 29 was proposed late, and may not clear its legislative hurdles before the Aug. 31 adjournment.

Back story: Public outrage after a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge sentenced a Stanford University student to six months in jail for sexual assault led California lawmakers to respond with calls to increase punishment for rape offenders. Bills AB 2888 and AB 701 are supported by crime victims advocates and some law enforcement groups. But the American Civil Liberties Union opposes AB 2888, calling it a hastily-drafted reactionary measure. Even so, both bills had overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans when passing out of the Assembly.

• AB 1276 and AB 1708: These bills would impose minimum fines and mandatory minimum county jail terms for persons convicted of paying for sex and allow minors ages 15 or younger to testify through closed-circuit televisions outside the courtroom, where they can share their experiences away from the presence of the jury and the defendant.

The latest: AB 1276 and AB 1708 have been sent to the governor’s desk.

Back story: More than 30 bills this legislative session have attempted to curb human trafficking through increased penalties for the buyers and sellers in the multibillion-dollar industry. AB 1276 and AB 1708 have drawn major support from advocates and some law enforcement agencies who say the legislation would increase accountability for offenders and extend protections for vulnerable victims, many of them young women and children swept into the criminal justice system. But the ACLU, public defenders and other law enforcement agencies contend the laws could erode the constitutional rights of defendants.

• AB 2199: This bill would give prosecutors an optional two-year sentence enhancement for a defendant who holds a “position of authority” and commits a sex crime against a minor.

The latest: This bill was shelved in the Senate Appropriation Committee, as some lawmakers saw it as a costly proposal that could place a burden on the court system and lead to prison overcrowding.

Back story: AB 2199 had strong backing from the law enforcement community and was proposed in response to what lawmakers say is an alarming pattern of adults in a position of authority using their power for sexual gain. Proponents say adults with power have the ability to shape their victims’ feelings about the relationship and should be held to greater accountability. But as with the previous bills, this proposal faced opposition from the ACLU.


Making ridesharing easier and safer

What the legislation would do: Lawmakers want to make it easier for people to drive for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies as well as boost background checks and other measures to address public safety concerns for riders.

The bills to watch include:

• AB 2763: Prospective ride-hailing drivers would be able to take out short-term leases on cars to work for the companies.

• AB 1289: This bill would increase background check requirements on ride-hailing drivers.

• AB 650: This would create a statewide taxi commission to make it easier for cabs to compete with Uber and Lyft.

AB 2687: This bill would tighten driving under the influence rules for ride-hailing company drivers.

The latest: All the ride-hailing legislation passed.

Back story: Ride-hailing companies have scored notable successes at the Capitol in recent months as they’ve attracted both business-aligned Republicans and tech-friendly Democrats. Lawmakers continue to weigh efforts to promote the industry as well as react to high-profile labor and public safety concerns.


Trying to address California’s lack of affordable housing

What the legislation would do: Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers are trying to spur more home building as well as spend more money on low-income housing subsidies as a way to deal with booming housing costs.

• Trailer Bill 707: A Brown-led initiative, now crafted as a “trailer” bill related to the state budget enacted in June, would streamline local approval for housing developments that reserve some of their units for low-income residents. If a version of the bill passes, the governor has agreed to spend $400 million this year on housing subsidy programs.

• AB 2299, AB 2406, SB 1069: These three bills would try to make it easier for homeowners to add another housing unit in their backyards or as part of their existing homes.

• SB 879: This bill is a $3-billion bond package of low-income housing subsidies that would require voter approval in November 2018.

The latest: Brown’s bill went nowhere amid intense opposition from powerful labor and environmental groups. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) declared it dead two weeks before the end of session. The housing bond also failed. The three measures to add secondary housing units, or “granny flats,” all passed.

Back story: California’s average home price of roughly $460,000 is more than double the national average and even higher in wealthy coastal communities in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Many academics and experts blame a lack of supply as the primary driver of rising costs.


More efforts to regulate medical marijuana

What the legislation would do: Ahead of a November statewide vote on a proposition to legalize the recreational use of pot, state lawmakers have proposed a number of additional regulations on medical marijuana.

The bills include:

• AB 2243: This bill would have allowed a pot tax of $9.25 per ounce of marijuana flowers, $2.75 per ounce of pot leaves and $1.25 per ounce of immature pot plants. The revenues would be earmarked for law enforcement and environmental programs.

• AB 2300: Landlords would be able to ban medical marijuana users from smoking in their apartment buildings.

• AB 2679: Licensing authorities would be required to report disciplinary actions and complaints to the state’s new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation. The bill also would authorize new research by the University of California into the effect of marijuana on motor skills.

The latest: The cannabis tax measure was killed, without explanation, after advocates for medical marijuana users said it would put a financial burden on patients. “We generally oppose any excise tax that is going to be passed on to the patient,” said Melissa Wilcox of Americans for Safe Access. AB 2300 was dropped on Aug. 30 because of opposition from a committee chair about depriving medical pot patients of their treatment. AB 2679 was given final legislative approval on Aug. 31 and sent to the governor.

Back story: California voters legalized medical use of marijuana in 1996 through Proposition 215. Since then, hundreds of cannabis dispensaries have popped up throughout the state, drawing complaints from neighborhoods that they are bringing in undesirable people and sparking crimes such as the robbery of marijuana handlers. In response, cities and counties have adopted a hodgepodge of regulations, some banning pot shops and others limiting them. Last year, lawmakers brought some uniformity with comprehensive regulations for the growing, transport and sale of medical marijuana. The rules could also be applied if voters in November approve Proposition 64, a ballot measure that would legalize recreational use of cannabis.


More information about prescription drug costs

What the legislation would do: This measure, SB 1010, would have required health plans to report detailed information on pharmaceutical drug costs, such as the most prescribed and most costly medicines, to state regulators. It would also have required drug manufacturers to give notice of future price hikes to insurance companies, pharmacy managers and the state agencies that buy prescription drugs.

The latest: The measure was substantially amended in the Assembly Appropriations committee to increase the threshold under which drug makers would have to report price increases and to delay the notice requirement for one year. After days of considering the changes, the bill’s author, Sen. Ed Hernández (D-West Covina), said the new version would not accomplish his goal of transparency and decided to pull the bill.

Back story: Proponents of this bill included health insurers, labor groups and consumer advocates, while pharmaceutical companies were opposed. The bill set off one of the fiercest lobbying battles of the year before being shelved; Hernández and his supporters vowed to revisit the issue next year.


Legalizing Internet poker in California

What the legislation would do: A measure by Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) would allow state Internet poker licenses to be granted to card rooms and the 60 Native American tribes that operate casinos, as long as they are judged “suitable” to participate after background checks by the state Department of Justice.

The latest: The bill, AB 2863, made it through the Assembly committee process but failed to win enough support to put up for a vote, so it died when the session ended Aug. 31. The bill needed a two-thirds majority — 54 votes — to pass. Few bills in Sacramento can muster that kind of bipartisan support, and gambling legislation is almost always controversial.

Back story: The quest to legalize online poker has been a simmering issue in the state Capitol for years, and features some of the most powerful political players lobbying for its passage or defeat. Disagreements among several prominent gaming tribes have bottled things up in previous attempts. Still, Gray and a group of Indian tribes that operate casinos say Californians are already playing poker on illegal websites without consumer protections and AB 2863 would regulate the games while allowing California gambling firms to run them for profit. While other tribes have remained opposed to the bill, amendments to it are still being negotiated.