Controversial bills test Jerry Brown in election year

08/30/2014 5:38 PM

08/31/2014 12:41 AM

As the Legislature closed down in the predawn hours Saturday, it left on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk a thicket of bills – including a sweeping ban on plastic bags and measures concerning gun control and bilingual education – with potential election-year effects for the governor and fellow Democrats.

The legislation reflects the interests of labor unions, environmentalists and liberal politicians in California’s Democratic-controlled Legislature, and with lawmakers finished for the year, lobbying pressure now shifts to the Governor’s Office.

Brown, who will sign or veto hundreds of bills amid heightened focus on his re-election campaign, is a champion of environmental and immigrant causes. But he is also a relatively moderate Democrat. The proposals he must address before Election Day touch on issues ranging from required sick-leave benefits for workers to the cost of buying groceries.

For popular, noncontroversial measures, the annual bill signing and veto period is an opportunity for an incumbent governor to soak up free publicity at bill-signing events, often in large media markets.

“It’s targeted publicity: Every bill has a particular group, a particular interest that’s following it closely,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “That’s the big advantage of incumbency.”

Lawmakers, meanwhile, have political reasons to vote for bills that satisfy their constituencies, and no reason not to send Brown legislation that may be difficult for him.

“Politically, the payoff comes in the vote,” Pitney said. “If the governor vetoes legislation they really want, they can take that up the following year and pass a different version. If I’m a legislator, what I want is voting for A, B or C, and if the governor vetoes that, that’s on him.”

Among the bills lawmakers sent Brown is Senate Bill 1210, which would create a student loan program for undocumented immigrant college students previously made eligible for financial aid.

Brown also confronts a bill that would place on the 2016 ballot a measure to repeal the state’s ban on bilingual education. Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 1174, by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, over Republican objections.

In addition, Brown will weigh three bills passed earlier last week that include voting policies that could help Democrats in future elections. One would allow 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote; another would require juvenile detention centers to help inmates register or pre-register to vote, and a third would allow ballots postmarked by Election Day, instead of received, to be counted in an election.

The Senate delayed voting on the bag ban and a bill to provide workers with three paid sick days a year – a major bill Brown negotiated – until the closing hours of its session, with Democrats waiting for Lara to return from officiating a wedding in Southern California. He returned about 11 p.m., after which lawmakers took the measures up.

The Senate waited even longer to act on another controversial issue now facing Brown – a labor-backed bill that was not even printed when it got its first hearing at 2:09 a.m. Saturday. Some of Sacramento’s most influential lobbyists crowded into a small hearing room for a brief discussion on Senate Bill 792.

Lobbyists from the Lang Hansen O’Malley firm, representing the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said the measure would ensure that painters on public works projects are appropriately trained in safety techniques for applying toxic materials. Also promoting the bill was the California Labor Federation, a union umbrella group.

“This bill, it’s a mock-up, is it not? Is this bill even in print?” asked Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte.

“It’s a mock-up,” Sen. Kevin de León, the incoming Senate leader, said with a nod.

The bill requires the state to set regulations for “corrosion prevention work” on public infrastructure projects. A version of the bill drafted a few days ago could not get enough votes to move ahead, so legislators gutted the contents of a bill that was further along in the legislative process and moved the idea there late Friday night.

“If this is a critical issue, it should come back and have a thorough hearing with a normal process next year when you reconvene,” said Richard Markuson, a lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors of San Diego and the Western Electrical Contractors Association.

David Ackerman, a lobbyist for the Associated General Contractors of California, said the bill was hard to assess with so little time.

“We’re concerned because the bill is limiting,” he said, adding that it may “force us to use contractors who have relationships with the union sponsoring the bill.”

Minutes after the hearing ended, the bill passed off the Senate floor on a party-line vote, without a word of debate.

Brown has often complained about the volume of bills sent to him each year by the Legislature, but the third-term governor has been relatively accommodating. He signed all but about 11 percent of regular session bills last year. In previous years, he vetoed less than 5 percent.

The bag bill, in addition to banning lightweight plastic bags from grocery stores, would have customers pay at least a dime for a paper or reusable plastic bag. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, who carried the measure, said he had not spoken with Brown about the ban and that “we’re taking nothing for granted.”

Still, Padilla said he “worked extensively” with Brown administration officials on the content of the regulation. More than 90 California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have already banned single-use plastic bags, suggesting signing the bill may not be as difficult politically as it once might have been.

Neel Kashkari, Brown’s Republican opponent, has mocked the measure as a sideshow to more important issues such as jobs and education. Brown leads Kashkari by a wide margin in public opinion polls, but he has taken a cautious approach to his re-election effort.

After a private meeting last week with Brown, Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental activist, said the governor discussed the $7.5 billion water bond Brown and lawmakers put this month on the November ballot.

Steyer said Brown’s attention appeared to be on “the election broadly speaking, on all the ramifications,” including the water bond and his re-election.

“We’ve got two months until the election,” Steyer said. “He’s pretty focused on making sure that it turns out the way he wants.”

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