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Capitol Journal: This California lobbyist lost his home in the fires. All he wanted was for the governor to sign his bill — and he did

Jerry Brown
California Gov. Jerry Brown holds up a number of bills he signed to help address housing needs as a group of elected officials and housing advocates look on Sept. 29 in San Francisco.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

After his house burned down in the wine country wildfire and he and his wife escaped through flames, community college lobbyist Patrick McCallum got a call from the governor’s office.

“Is there anything we can do?” asked a top advisor to Gov. Jerry Brown. It was a common-courtesy throwaway that evoked a serious answer.

“Yeah,” McCallum immediately replied. “Sign AB 19.”

Assembly Bill 19, which McCallum had been lobbying for all year against stiff odds, finally passed the Legislature Sept. 13 near the end of its 2017 session and was on Brown’s desk to be signed or vetoed. It would allow full-time, first-year students to attend community college without paying course fees.

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McCallum had expected Brown to veto the bill because of the cost, estimated at between $32 million and $50 million annually by the governor’s budget office, which opposed the measure. But Brown signed it.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that the veteran lobbyist’s house had been totally destroyed in a firestorm. Maybe Brown wasn’t feeling sorry for McCallum and his wife, Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki, and trying to ease their pain. But maybe he was.

Regardless, it was a laudable signing, one of the most important of the year. It was among Brown’s nearly 1,000 bill signings or vetoes in 2017.

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Brown’s staff argued that providing free college courses for students, no matter their families’ incomes, should have been debated in June while the state budget was being passed.

But McCallum and the bill’s author, Assemblyman Miquel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), a former community college student, lobbied the governor hard. They solicited 6,600 student signatures on petitions.

“We got a lot of buzz going,” McCallum recalls.

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The contention that this state can’t afford free community college is hogwash. Before 1984, California didn’t charge any community college course fees. Then the Legislature authorized $5 per unit. Now it’s at $46. Books, supplies and any housing are on top of that.

About half the students get their fees waived because they’re poor. But the other half should too just to encourage continued learning, expand career options and provide a more educated California workforce.

“What a high school degree provided 35 years ago now requires a community college degree,” McCallum says.

The bill-signing deadline was Oct. 15. McCallum went to bed Sunday night, Oct. 8, fretting about AB 19. In the wee hours, smoke alarms started sounding. They were ignored because McCallum, in his slumber, figured high winds were setting them off.

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“Finally, Judy got up to take a look,” he says. “She opened the bedroom door, and the house was in flames. We ran through the flames, and everything outside was ablaze. If we had left 10 seconds later, we’d have died.

“I was barefoot and in boxer shorts. Judy had a robe. We ran for a third of a mile with embers all over the road. Everything in the house was lost.”

Brown signed the bill Oct. 13. Either the governor saw the light or the flames — probably both.

Coverage of California politics »

Brown also acted on several other significant bills, including:

• Primary elections: He signed a measure moving up California’s presidential primary from June to March in an attempt to give the state more clout in the nominating process. That also could help a California candidate. Good idea.

But it was a bad bill because the state primary was moved up, too, even in non-presidential years. So we’ll have gubernatorial and other state candidates running full speed by Halloween of the previous year. Political campaigns will become even longer.

Brown should have insisted on separating the elections, moving up the presidential primary and keeping the state contests sensibly in June.

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• Candidate tax returns: Brown wisely vetoed a spiteful “gotcha” bill aimed by Democrats at their hated punching bag, President Trump. It would have required all presidential candidates to release their income tax returns for the last five years. Anyone who refused wouldn’t be permitted on the California ballot.

“First, it may not be constitutional,” Brown wrote. “Second, it sets a ‘slippery slope’ precedent. … What would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?”

• Wireless expansion: Backing local governments, Brown vetoed a bill that would have given telecommunications companies power to install wireless transmitters on utility poles, streetlights or wherever without pesky interference from city hall or the courthouse. That’s too much power.

• Beach smoking: Brown vetoed legislation to ban smoking at state parks and beaches. “If people can’t smoke even on a deserted beach, where can they?” the non-smoker asserted. “There must be some limit to the coercive power of government.” Agreed.

Brown signed several major bills that had already been shaped by him before they passed the Legislature. They included the so-called sanctuary state bill, an affordable-housing package, a $4-billion parks and water bond proposal and a $5.2-billion annual gas tax and vehicle fee increase to finance highway repairs.

It was a good legislative year for Brown.

Next year, the governor and lawmakers should develop legislation aimed at alerting the likes of McCallum and Sakaki during sleeping hours. Television warning alerts don’t work when the TV is off. Cellphones and other fancy technology melt in fires.

Perhaps we need to go back to old-fashioned horn honking and bullhorns.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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