State Net Capitol Journal: California Lawmakers Enter Annual Rush to Tackle Big Issues As Session Winds Down

State Net Capitol Journal: California Lawmakers Enter Annual Rush to Tackle Big Issues As Session Winds Down

By Rich Ehisen |

It's August, which can only mean that lawmakers in the nation's most populous state have entered their annual sprint to weigh in on numerous measures before the session winds down at the end of the month. This year, the stack of bills awaiting them when they returned from summer recess on August 4 was over 1,000 strong, covering some of the most contentious issues of the year. Some of those measures include: 
 
SB 270, a bill that would ban grocery stores from offering single-use plastic bags. It is now in the Assembly. 
 
SB 962, which would require cell phone manufacturers to make smart phones with so-called "kill switches" that allow the owner to remotely render them useless if stolen. (More on this below) 
 
AB 1522, which would require employers to provide their workers with up to three paid sick leave days a year. It is in the Senate. 
 
AB 1839, a proposal to extend the state's film tax credit incentive program. It is in the Assembly. 
 
AB 1014, a bill inspired by a shooting at the University of California Santa Barbara that would allow family members to obtain a temporary restraining order that bars a loved one suspected of having mental health issues from buying a gun. It is in the Senate Appropriations Committee. 
 
AB 2056, a proposal to regulate the largely unregulated pet insurance industry. It is in the Senate. 
 
SB 1262, which would allow the state to more closely regulate medical marijuana shops. It is in the Assembly. 
 
AB 69, a bill that would delay for three years placing fuels under California's cap-and-trade law. Fuels are set to come under the law next January as part of the state's 2006 mandate to cut production of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. According to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office, doing so would raise gas prices anywhere from 13 cents to 20 cents a gallon by 2020. It has cleared the Assembly and is now in the Senate. 
 
There are also several proposals revolving around California's tenuous water situation, including measures that would reconstruct a longstanding bond initiative and give the state more power to regulate groundwater withdrawals, mostly by big agricultural interests. 
 
The cell phone kill switch measure, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D), became the first major bill to move last week. Sparked by a dramatic rise in cell phone thefts — and injuries related to those thefts — the measure (SB 962) nonetheless drew major opposition from cell phone manufacturers when it was originally introduced earlier this year. They contended that numerous software applications already exist, most of them free, to allow a smartphone owner to lock their phones if stolen. 
 
After being rejected in the Senate, bill author Sen. Mark Leno (D) agreed to push the measure's implementation date back to the middle of 2015 and exempt tablets from the requirement. That satisfied enough of the industry opposition, and the new version passed that chamber in May. The Assembly followed suit last Thursday, approving it predominantly along party lines and sending it back to the Senate for concurrence. 
 
That would make California only the second state (after Minnesota) to adopt a smartphone kill-switch mandate, though Leno notes his bill has one major difference. 
 
"Minnesota's new law is an opt-in," he says. "Our law defaults to the opt-out position, which is the best way to get it to be a comprehensive, ubiquitous technological deterrent. We need to get it into a criminal's mind that it's not worth the trouble and risk to steal a phone because every phone has this technology. If it's opt-in, that criminal may still be willing to take the chance. Maybe the phone's owner hasn't downloaded the application, which means it still has value to a thief." 
 
Although the bill is still opposed by powerful groups like the California Chamber of Commerce and the Washington D.C.-based group CTIA, which lobbies on behalf of the wireless industry, Leno says he is "confident" California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) will sign it if it gets to his desk. He also believes that California coming on board could prod many other states and perhaps even Congress to follow suit. 
 
"We have seen in many other policy areas that when we take an action it becomes the de facto way to proceed across the country," he says. "The ultimate solution, of course, would be to have Congress follow our lead." 
 
While getting Congress to do much of anything useful may seem a challenge of historic proportions, California's longstanding water wars may be even more daunting. Last Tuesday, Brown called on lawmakers to slash in half a proposed $11.2 billion water bond initiative set for the November ballot. In an open letter posted on his campaign Web site, Brown called the current proposal — crafted by lawmakers and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in 2009 and delayed from going before voters twice since — "pork laden" and with a price tag that is "beyond what's reasonable or affordable." Brown has proposed a $6 billion bond he calls "a no-frills, no-pork water bond that invests in the most critical projects without breaking the bank." Brown's plan would invest about $2 billion in new above ground storage and another $1.2 billion for watershed and habitat restoration projects. 
 
But the proposal has drawn negative reactions from lawmakers, who say the governor is going cheap at a time when the state needs historic investment in its water infrastructure. The proposal drew particular scrutiny from Republicans, many of whom represent Central Valley and Southern California districts that have clamored for years for more dams and other storage capacity upgrades. In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff said the $2 billion Brown's plan lists for storage "falls well short" of the $3 billion he says is needed. 
 
The governor's top Democratic colleagues have also questioned his proposal. In a statement, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D) said that while she agreed with Brown that "voters would ultimately reject the existing $11.2 billion water bond on the November ballot as too expensive," she is concerned that "his $6 billion proposal would ultimately be too small to meet the state's dire needs." 
 
Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D), the last legislative leader left in office who was part of crafting the 2009 deal, also supports slashing the bond's ultimate price tag, but notes the Senate has crafted a version of around $7.5 billion, SB 848, authored by Sen. Lois Wolk (D). Money, he says, is also not the only concern: management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — the largest wetlands in the western U.S. — is also a significant issue yet to be resolved. Wolk, whose district includes a portion of the Delta, agrees with Steinberg's assessment. 
 
"It has to be real collaboration — it can't just be hollow," Wolk told Capitol Public Radio last week. "The word can't be hollow. There have to be actual requirements for consultation and for cooperation and for decision-making." 
 
Lawmakers have until the end of this week to craft a replacement proposal if they hope to get it on the November ballot. 

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