Lawmakers make final push

Published: Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013 - 8:23 pm
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 - 3:29 pm

The Assembly returns from its summer recess today to face a full plate of issues for the final six weeks of the legislative year.

In an unusual twist to the end-of-session narrative, the Senate will not return until next Monday because the two houses could not agree on a uniform recess this year.

Democrats have maintained their two-thirds majority in the Senate - which allows them to raise taxes or approve constitutional amendments without GOP votes. But because of vacancies and the timing of special elections to fill them, Assembly Democrats will not regain their supermajority until after the session closes.

More than 900 bills are pending in the two houses, and lawmakers will return to packed schedules with interest groups pushing legislation through the close of session on Sept. 13. Some issues - such as possible rewriting of medical malpractice rules or rescuing the state's debt-ridden unemployment fund - have not made it into bills.

And even freshman legislators such as Assemblyman Marc Levine are familiar with the legislative tradition of making last-minute amendments to unrelated bills in order to minimize scrutiny.

"This is that period of time where bills are victim of the gut-and-amend process," said Levine, D-San Rafael. "I think it's critically important for legislators to be thoughtful about the long-term impact on the state." Here's a look at five issues percolating during lawmakers' final push for the year: Click here for more information.

ISSUE: ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW LAW

Relevant legislation: Senate Bill 731 modifies the landmark California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, to limit the scope of review needed for certain projects.

Key players: The bill's author, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and the city of Sacramento used the bill as a selling point for keeping the Kings in Sacramento by saying an arena project wouldn't be hampered by environmental reviews.

What's going on: Business and environmental interests are at odds over what to do with the environmental act. And both are unhappy with SB 731. A group of businesses and local governments say the bill doesn't achieve "meaningful reform" needed to end frivolous lawsuits that delay and kill projects. Environmental groups argue that CEQA protects historic resources threatened by proposed development.

Status: Cleared the Senate; awaiting hearings in the Assembly.

ISSUE: MEDICAL SCOPE OF PRACTICE

Relevant legislation: At the start of session, a flurry of related bills cropped up, and many still remain, including Senate Bill 491, which would allow nurse practitioners to open their own clinics and see patients without a doctor's supervision.

Key players: The California Medical Association, representing the state's doctors, is at odds with other associations representing non-doctor health professionals. Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, himself an optometrist, is carrying the bill package that doctors oppose.

What's going on: Doctors, nurses and a variety of specialized health professionals are fighting over who should get your business once federal law requires that everyone have health insurance. Bills such as Senate Bill 492, which would allow optometrists to diagnose and treat any condition with eye symptoms such as diabetes, have created epic turf wars. "There is a lot of talk about what the Legislature can do to make health care more affordable," said Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, who chairs the Appropriations Committee. "Both sides will argue that their side makes health care more affordable."

Status: Bills are pending in both houses. Three key measures are scheduled for a hearing Tuesday in the Assembly Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee.

ISSUE: UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE FUND DEFICIT

Relevant legislation: None yet

Key players: Gov. Jerry Brown wants to make changes to the state's unemployment insurance program, which pays Californians up to $450 a week and is about $10 billion in debt. His administration is discussing the matter with business and labor groups.

What's going on: Brown wants to pay down debt on money the state has borrowed from the federal government to prop up its unemployment fund. A proposal to reduce the debt would likely include raising payroll taxes paid by employers. "It has been on a back burner for the last several years while we grapple with how to balance the budget," said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento. "Now that we are in a better position, it's an appropriate time to look at the issue."

Status: Talks continue.

ISSUE: HYDRAULIC FRACKING

Relevant legislation: Senate Bill 4

Key players: Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, is carrying the bill. Environmental groups are split after unsuccessfully pushing three bills that would have placed a moratorium on the practice in the state. The oil industry, one of the biggest players at the Capitol, is opposed.

What's going on: Fracking is an extraction process that involves blasting a mix of chemicals and water deep underground to extract oil and gas. While three Assembly Democrats called for a moratorium, Pavley's bill would require extensive permitting and reporting requirements, but does not prohibit "well stimulation." Many environmental groups are in support, but Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said her group opposes SB 4 because it would allow for the concentration and quantity of fracking fluid to be kept from the public through trade secret protections.

Status: The measure is pending in the Assembly.

ISSUE: MEDICAL MALPRACTICE LAWSUITS

Relevant legislation: None yet

Key players: Trial lawyers and consumer advocates want the cap lifted on awards for pain and suffering. Doctors, hospitals and insurers don't.

What's going on: The group Consumer Attorneys of California is hoping to increase the amount victims can recover in medical malpractice lawsuits from $250,000 to $1.1 million. Current law allows unlimited compensation for lost wages and medical costs, but attorneys say the current cap on pain and suffering discourages attorneys from taking on malpractice cases. The California Medical Association says lifting the cap would only encourage meritless lawsuits that will raise health care costs. In what is seen as an effort to prompt legislative negotiations, Consumer Watchdog has filed papers to take the issue directly to voters next year through a ballot measure.

Status: Talks continue as paperwork for the initiative is processed in the attorney general's office.

CALENDAR: TO DO

Aug. 5: Assembly returns Senate bills in the Assembly: 441

Aug. 12: Senate returns Assembly bills in the Senate: 474

Sept. 13: Session ends.

Governor's deadline to act on legislation passed in the final days: Sept. 13

Call Melody Gutierrez, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow her on Twitter @melodygutierrez.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Melody Gutierrez



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