Budget process, talk of special elections stifle other agendas
The San Francisco Chronicle
Sacramento, CA — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in high theatrical flourish, piloted his Humvee from the Capitol earlier this month to embark on his “Year of Reform.” Democrats said they would fight the governor at the ballot box if he calls a special election later this year.
As both sides engage in what has become the political equivalent to a game of chicken, some unanswered questions have been hanging over the Capitol these first few days of spring. Such as:
Doesn’t anyone in town care about legalizing ferrets anymore? Or whether the state should supply condoms to prison inmates? Or ban smoking on the beach?
This week, lawmakers conclude a weeklong recess and return to the Capitol facing a new reality: that the town’s raison d’etre — the debating and passing of laws — is now a pale second act, supplanted by Schwarzenegger’s third-down-and-goal approach to governing.
“It’s rule by politics and not by policy,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who has bills pending this session on issues from legalizing same-sex marriage to curbing police use of Taser guns and the growing of industrial hemp. “All I can do as a legislator is to work… to build as strong a case as I can.”
Doing so this year will mean lobbying fellow members and vying for attention in an extraordinary climate, making it harder to gain traction on several issues, said Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
“Everything is in such a hyper-political mode that important issues may have a lot of trouble getting discussed,” Heller said. “The actual debating of issues — I don’t know when that’s going to get done. If everybody is attending to the side-show, then what’s going on in the Big Top can be quite disturbing.”
Heller’s organization itself reflects the change. Where it might normally focus on fighting or promoting any number of bills, the advocacy group is most visible through its frequent editions of “ArnoldWatch,” an e-mail rundown of the governor’s robust fund raising.
All bills must move through their first committees by the end of April, portending a quickening of pace next month.
One of the session’s biggest issues is a bill that puts forth the Schwarzenegger administration’s plan to reduce prescription drug costs. The bill, SB19 by Sen. Debra Ortiz, D-Sacramento, allows the state’s Department of Health Services to negotiate discounts with drug manufacturers, and operate “Cal Rx,” a program in which residents without prescription drug coverage would apply to be included to obtain cheaper drugs.
The administration created the proposal last year after Schwarzenegger vetoed more stringent measures, including one that would have allowed state agencies to purchase drugs from Canada. The drug industry helped the administration craft the current proposal, and would rather see the issue resolved in the Legislature than the ballot box.
The bill’s future is uncertain at best. Many Democrats want to see other, tougher bills enacted. Steve Maviglio, a deputy chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nez, said Ortiz’s bill has no future in the lower house.
As issues such as prescription drug availability make their way through the Legislature, they face competition for the attention of lawmakers focused on negotiations with Schwarzenegger on his proposals to adopt merit pay for teachers, overhaul the public employee pension system, impose new budget controls and strip lawmakers of their authority to draw political boundaries.
“The special election will make it a little more difficult to focus on other things,” said Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, who chairs the lower house’s labor committee. “I have my hands full personally trying to deal with the labor-oriented pieces of what the governor is doing. It’s kept me focused on things other than my legislation.”
Beyond his bill to legalize ferret ownership — a statehouse perennial that, some way or another, has fallen short each session — Koretz also has bills to ban the cropping of dog’s ears and to make condoms available to state prison inmates.
The latter two have already been lampooned by Schwarzenegger as he continues to cast Democratic lawmakers as frittering busybodies. But the governor mocked several bills last year, only to eventually sign them. That makes it harder this year for lawmakers to gauge what a midyear swipe at their legislation may foretell.
The first spring of a two-year term is never a make-or-break season for bills. But several factors have already made it the oddest of odd years and kept lawmakers, their staff and interest groups preoccupied.
January’s State of the State address by Schwarzenegger, read by many Democrats as a partisan call to arms, was followed by a special legislative session to consider his various proposals. Meanwhile, Democrats began budget hearings far earlier than normal.
The practical effect of both was to tie many lawmakers in various committees, subcommittees and hearings with less time to pursue their own agendas.
“All these hearings we’re having… is consuming a lot of our time,” said Debra Gravert, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County). “I thought everyone would come out of the walls by now, and it’s been oddly quiet.”
Last year, Pavley was author of a bill signed by Schwarzenegger to allow solo hybrid-car drivers into carpool lanes. Among her other efforts this session, she’s out to apply a 10-cent-a-pack manufacturer’s tax on cigarettes to pay for cleanup of discarded butts and eliminate most lead from costume jewelry.
Former Democratic state Senate leader David Roberti said the current political climate could hamstring legislation on any highly charged issue not headed for a possible special-election ballot.
“You always cut back on controversy in an election year,” he said. “That probably would not bode well for people who have avant-garde legislation.”
Lawmakers like Leno say they’ll press ahead regardless.
“It would be a very different year if… we didn’t have to put up with all this extraneous noise and a likely special election,” he said. “I would have preferred it.”
Bills of the season
Here are a few pending bills that address issues identified as major concerns by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrats.
— Health care: AB1670, by Assemblymen Keith Richman, R-Northridge (Los Angeles County), and Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, would require all Californians to carry basic health insurance or see their wages garnished or their tax refunds withheld. The bill aims to counter spiraling state Medicaid costs. Also, SB840 by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, would establish a state-run health care plan.
— Prescription drugs: Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, has teamed with Sen. Charles Poochigian, R-Fresno, on SB19, a Schwarzenegger-backed bill that would require the state to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to provide discounted drugs to poor Californians.
— Transportation, housing: Senate Democrats are pushing an array of bills to promote “infill” over suburban sprawl. Among them is SB832 by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, to make it tougher to block affordable housing projects.
— Exit exams: This bill would delay implementation of the state high school exit exam until the state provides adequate resources for schools. (SB517, Sen Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles.)
— End-of-life care: AB654 by Assemblymen Patty Berg, D-Eureka, and Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, would legalize physician-assisted suicide.
— Same-sex marriage: AB19 by Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would stipulate only that state marriages are between two people, not a man and woman.
— ‘Secret settlements’: AB1700 by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County), would place limits on when legal settlements can be made confidential in areas that relate to public welfare.
— Animal rights: Bills to ban the cropping of dog’s ears (AB418, Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood), legalize ownership of ferrets (AB647-Koretz) and ban desktop hunting (SB1028, Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey (Los Angeles County).
— Smoking: Bills have been offered to ban smoking on state beaches (AB17-Koretz) and charge cigarette manufacturers 10 cents per pack to clean up butts there and elsewhere (AB1612-Pavley).
— Video games: AB450 by Assemblyman Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would add a $1,000 penalty to the illegal sale of violent video games to children age 16 or under.
Chronicle staff writer Christian Berthelsen contributed to this report.
E-mail John M. Hubbell at [email protected]