Midnight in the state Capitol

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2003 legislative session ends with bills being voted on into the wee hours.

The Orange County Register

SACRAMENTO — At 12:01 a.m. Friday, the Legislature’s longest day begins humbly enough, with Assembly clerks Larry Murman and Brian Ebbert sorting through a rainbow of red, orange, yellow and green bills, calling out their numbers. Ebbert reads fast, like an auctioneer.

“Six-fifty-two. Seventeen- thirty-six. Eleven-oh-eight.”

Uh-oh. A piece of legislation is missing. Why isn’t it in the box with the others?

The day is a minute old and the Legislature won’t convene for 10 and a half more hours, but already there’s a problem in the Capitol. Murman rummages around and quickly finds the bill stashed in a drawer. Crisis averted.

The incident is a microcosm of what will occur at the Capitol over the next 24 – check that, 28 – hours, as the state’s 120 elected legislators and hundreds of staff members, lobbyists, reporters and ordinary citizens come together to participate in one of Sacramento’s wildest and most highly criticized events.

Of the 2,867 new laws that legislators proposed back in January, about 100 remain to be dealt with by midnight, the official end of the 2003 legislative session. The procrastination-induced fury that will transpire this day is a once-a-year ritual that brings out the best and worst in those who write the laws.

Measures will be amended at the last minute and deals will be struck whose impact will be foreseen by no one. Petty politics will trump statesmanship. State senators and Assembly members will cast votes on legislation they’ve had no time to read.

The hallways will be lined with people who want favors. The air will be foul with body odor and pizza breath. There will be shouting, sighing, laughing and, perhaps, crying.

In a year in which Californians have shown they care deeply how their state is governed, The Orange County Register decided to offer readers a window to spectacle.

While the clerks continue to count bills into the wee hours, a dozen Indian tribal leaders and their lobbyists stand in a circle in the first floor corridor. It’s about 1:30 a.m. Ties are loosened and shirttails leak from waistbands.

A bill that seeks to protect Indian burial sites from building development has been defeated in the Assembly.

The Indians have been huddling with an ally of the builders and have agreed to amendments that will weaken the protection for their sacred sites. There is now a second chance for the bill. But they don’t feel good about it.

At 6:22 a.m., the gray-blue light of dawn begins to filter through the 100-foot trees in Capitol Park.

For a moment, the rising Central Valley sun bathes the granite dome in a rose-colored light. As the sun climbs into a cerulean sky for what will be another 97-degree day, the 128-year-old Capitol’s blocks of Folsom granite reflect the yellow glow, and then brighten to gray-white in the full light.

In today’s climate of economic and political crisis, it is hard to imagine that California once had the will, and the cash, to build such a grand monument to statehood.

“The Morning Groove Crew” from Sacramento’s 101.1 FM has set up on the Capitol lawn – broadcasting, as well as offering “touch therapy” to anyone who wants it.

The station’s speakers blare the Commodores into an otherwise quiet Capitol morning. “She’s a brick … HOUSE!” sings Lionel Richie. Every now and then, an “Aah!” can be heard emanating from the touch-therapy booth.

Three blocks away, on the sixth floor of a parking garage at 10 and J streets, lobbyist Jerry Flanagan leaves his car. On his parking ticket, he scribbles, “10 + J, 6.”

Flanagan has spent many 16-hour days at the Capitol. And after too many of them, he has ended up wandering the streets looking for his car. Tonight, whatever happens to his bills, at least he will be able to find his way home.

It’s early afternoon. Senate Leader John Burton has spent most of the day walking the corridors, cell phone at his ear. He is glowering. He is the author of the Indian sacred sites bill, and he knows it is in big trouble in the Assembly.

Burton, D-San Francisco, studies a printout of the latest Assembly vote. He spots two Assembly Democrats marked absent. “He didn’t vote and he didn’t vote,” the Senate leader snorts. He spins on his heel and heads toward the lower house to twist some arms.

This takes him through “The Intersection,” where two major corridors cross. The area is clogged with lobbyists, staffers, reporters and lawmakers’ friends who want a moment of his time. It takes Burton eight minutes to go the 150 feet to the Assembly lounge, where he spots some fellow Democrats. “Hey, let’s go do work!” he snaps.

On the Assembly side of the building, the Indian bill is the flashpoint for a sharp exchange between two Orange County Republicans who are running against each other for a state Senate seat.

Assemblyman Ken Maddox, who favors the bill, is backing a Democrat’s suggestion to send it back to a committee at the last minute and get it amended so it will have a better chance of passing later in the evening.

Assemblyman John Campbell, an opponent of the bill, denounces the move, calling it an end run and “an abuse of the process.” Maddox says Campbell isn’t clued in.

“You may not be aware of the discussions that have occurred,” he says, suggesting that Campbell is trying to block the bill by hiding behind parliamentary procedure.

For most legislators, the day’s big goal is to pass the landmark workers’ compensation and health care reforms.

But by early evening, the Assembly has yet to take up SB 2, which extends health care to 1 million California workers. The Senate is clearly annoyed at the Assembly’s dawdling.

To get things moving, senators throw up a bluff.

At 7:45 p.m., word passes to the Assembly that the Senate has taken up AB 923. This bill would repeal some hard-won tax exemptions for farmers.

The bill had a tough time getting through the Assembly the first time around. If the Senate amends it and throws it back, it would be like detonating a bomb in the middle of the Assembly floor.

Within a half hour, the Assembly takes up SB 2.

The Senate abruptly drops discussion of AB 923 and never mentions it again.

About 8 p.m., lobbyists for the building industry can be seen in a bar across L Street from the Capitol drinking highballs and eating ahi tuna and fried calamari. The Assembly and Senate sessions blare down from a series of flat-screen TVs. The lobbyists don’t seem concerned. “Get some of this wasabi,” one says, sharing his tuna.

On the other side of the bar, two lobbyists for the Indian Nations are drinking Chardonnay and trying to see what’s happening in the Assembly, where their bill is still pending. But the screen’s angled the wrong way.

Lobbyist Susan A. Jensen discusses the irony of a major exhibit on California labor, which is hanging in the Capitol Rotunda. Among other moments in California history, it depicts mission-era Indians – whom many consider to have been enslaved by the Spanish.

“It’s tough for the tribal elders to be in that building and trust anyone,” Jensen says.

She also is worried because the builders’ lobbyists seem pretty relaxed.

“They are acting like it’s finished,” she says.

The Assembly debate on SB2, the health-care bill, lasts an hour and fifteen minutes. Lawmakers have three minutes to make their point.

Mostly Republicans speak. They mostly say the same thing: SB2, which requires businesses with more than 50 employees to buy health insurance for their employees, would hurt business.

“This bill is the embalming of business in California,” said Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy, R-Monrovia.

Business would need a “defibrillator,” said Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia.

Speaker Pro Tem Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, puts her foot down.

“The use of metaphors and sing-song and various other phrases I think has passed the point of being a civil way to debate in a democracy,” she admonishes.

No metaphors? The members appear crushed.

The bill eventually passes, and what is widely seen as the session’s most significant legislation will be sent to Gov. Gray Davis.

Davis himself is not around tonight – away in Los Angeles to campaign against the Oct. 7 recall. But a half-dozen of his staffers are at work in a suite of offices on the first floor known as the “horseshoe.” Among other things, they must track each piece of legislation.

Sometimes bills get lost. The constitution says a bill automatically becomes law if the governor has it for 30 days but doesn’t act on it. In the 1990s, a dozen bills were misplaced and became law. All were minor, except one – a Democratic “pork-barrel” bill, much to the chagrin of Republican Pete Wilson, who was governor at the time.

The “gut-and-amend” tradition rears its head in the Assembly about 11 p.m.

The governor’s office of international trade was thought to have been eliminated by Legislature in July after the Register published a story detailing false claims of success by the agency.

But killing a bureaucracy in Sacramento is never simple. Sometime late Thursday or early Friday an Assembly committee took a bill about the Salton Sea, removed its original language and amended it to reestablish the trade office.

Republicans are furious.

“We just came to what was supposedly a budget agreement and one of the things included in it was the elimination of the trade offices,” fumes Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto. “Now we are going back on the deal before the session is even over. When I went through orientation, I was told how important your word is in this place, I believed that.”

The bill passes 42-24 and is sent to the Senate.

Veterans know to stay vigilant in last hours of a session.

Insurance industry advocate Doug Widtfeldt, along with 100 other sweaty lobbyists, is still prowling the corridors about 11:30 p.m., even though the bills he’s interested in have been resolved.

“A few years ago, I don’t even remember the bill, I left early and went home,” Widtfeldt said. “I thought it was greased. Then I woke up the next morning and found out that the bill was dead. I always stay around now.”

As midnight approaches – then passes – without adjournment, the bills come up more quickly. So do tempers.

Assembly Republicans have a fit over a bill, AB 17, that requires contractors to extend health and insurance benefits to domestic partners.

Republicans angrily denounce the bill as unconstitutional. It passes anyway, with Democrats’ votes.

“This is a three-ring circus, members, and it’s painful to watch,” bellows Dennis Mountjoy.

In the back of the Assembly, staffers hiss and disparage the Monrovia Republican.

Another Burton bill, SB 552, which would force state agencies to pull from their fleets sport utility vehicles, creates a huge ruckus on the Assembly floor. The bill might even force some legislators to give back their state-issued SUVs.

Campbell, a former car dealer, and other Republicans fume. The bill passes anyway.

It’s shortly after 1 a.m., and Burton prowls the Assembly floor like an angry lion, trying to get the lower house to vote on SB18, the sacred-sites bill.

“I can’t keep the (Senate) members here,” he warns Assembly staffers.

Finally, at 1:15 a.m., the Assembly vote is called. It has 37 of the required 41 votes.

Burton bustles around the chamber, twisting more arms. He’s not out of it yet. The count climbs: 38, 39 – then suddenly drops sharply back to 37.

“That measure fails,” intones Speaker Pro Tem Kehoe.

Seems the Indian nation lobbyists’ instincts – call it the highball test – were correct. The death of the bill had been assured for hours.

Deflated, Burton wanders out the back door of the Assembly, pursued by reporters.

“Sen. Burton! What happened?” one asks.

“I didn’t get enough votes,” he snaps.

Then Burton softens.

“The powerful building lobby scared them to death,” he growls.

Later, Burton postulates that the late amendments, pushed through at 1 a.m., had actually hurt the bill, making people suspicious of it.

The Senate, which prides itself on its relative civility and ability to manage itself, adjourns at 1:35 a.m.

On the second floor of the Rotunda, an Indian tribal elder is crumpled in a chair, sobbing.

The Assembly, however, is still in full swing, and it has one more surprise in store.

At 2:45 a.m., Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, rises to pitch AB 1313, which would extend Megan’s Law. If the bill fails, California will no longer have a sex offender tracking system.

This bill requires a two-thirds majority vote. This puts Republicans in a corner. They can’t block simple-majority bills, but they can block two-thirds bills, and they’ve been doing so. This is in retribution for the poor treatment they feel they are getting from Democrats, who earlier in the week stopped legislation that would send money for programs to individual Republican members’ districts.

Do the Republicans cave in on this one, or do they actually allow Megan’s Law to expire? After all, Parra’s principal co-author is Republican Todd Spitzer of Orange, a former prosecutor.

But in the end even Spitzer abstains, along with all but two Republicans. With only 49 votes, the bill fails.

Megan’s law will expire in January.

The Assembly finally adjourns at 3:50 a.m. Saturday, with its lawmakers congratulating each other.

The 2003 session is history.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdoghttps://consumerwatchdog.org
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