Politics & Government

Key issues for returning California Legislature

UC President Janet Napolitano’s plan to raise tuition if the system doesn’t receive more state funding has prompted a range of proposals from lawmakers to head off any increases.
UC President Janet Napolitano’s plan to raise tuition if the system doesn’t receive more state funding has prompted a range of proposals from lawmakers to head off any increases. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Here we go again.

A new year means a new Legislature, complete with 37 new lawmakers, 38 new committee chairs and three leaders new to opening session atop their caucuses. They will bring a burst of activity to downtown Sacramento, where the corridors of the state Capitol, the coffee shops and the restaurants will soon hum with staff, lawmakers and lobbyists plying their trade.

“It’s huge for us,” said Ambrosia manager Kim Anderson, pointing both to more customers at the popular K Street cafe and opportunities to cater events like a flurry of post-swearing-in receptions. “It’s the 11th largest government in the world, so a lot of people. Lobbyists, legislative staff, interns. We get busy again.”

Another massive freshman class was already inaugurated in December amid speeches and glittering special interest-sponsored receptions. Those state government neophytes will join a substantial class of second-term lawmakers elected in 2012. Elected under new term limit rules, the two waves of relatively inexperienced legislators could together shape California policy for a decade.

There will be no shortage of issues to occupy them. Some of the debates likely to arise this year, such as how California funds public universities and handles medical marijuana, have smoldered for years. Others, such as questions about the new “sharing economy,” reflect the rise of new industries and increasingly influential interest groups.

This list is not comprehensive. Likely pushes to tackle California’s public pension liabilities or hold police officers accountable with body cameras, for example, will also occupy the Capitol. But these are five prominent issues likely to consume the Legislature’s attention and political capital.

Medical marijuana

Two decades after California legalized medical marijuana, Sacramento has proved consistently unwilling to enact state-level regulation of the cultivation, transportation and sale of the quasi-legal plant. A key difference this year: with other states having sanctioned recreational pot, advocates are determined to put full legalization on the 2016 ballot in California. Those who favor broad regulation hope the looming ballot initiative will motivate lawmakers to rein in the medical market before voters potentially launch a new green rush. There are already two bills in the pipeline that would create a statewide cannabis system: one by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, and one by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles.

Key players: California Police Chiefs Association/California Narcotics Officers Association, the League of California Cities, cannabis advocates

UC tuition

November elections had scarcely ended when University of California President Janet Napolitano initiated the first major budget battle of 2015, floating a plan to raise UC tuition annually for five years. She immediately drew a backlash from lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown, who believed the university was reneging on a deal to freeze tuition in exchange for Proposition 30 dollars. Leaders in the Senate and the Assembly have since announced alternative plans to avert tuition bumps, and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, has proposed hauling UC officials in to have them justify their budgets line by line. With California’s coffers flush again, this could be the main pressure point for lawmakers imploring Brown to loosen the purse strings.

Key players: Brown, Napolitano, Atkins, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, budget committee chairs

Taxes

With his first bill as a state senator, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg has proposed a massive shift in California tax policy, one he says better reflects a 21st century economy where information and services make up a huge portion of economic activity. The Los Angeles Democrat proposes extending the state’s sales tax to many services and devoting the money to education and local governments. As a tax hike, the bill requires two-thirds approval – a heavy lift in a Legislature where Democrats have lost their supermajority. But Hertzberg chairs the committee that oversees tax bills and is widely seen as an ambitious politician. Taxes will also figure big this year as political operatives prepare ballot measures for the 2016 election. Education advocates are calling for an extension of the temporary tax increases voters approved with Proposition 30 in 2012, and liberal activists want to change 1978’s Proposition 13 to increase taxes on commercial property. Public health advocates have said they will pursue a new tax on cigarettes this year, through either legislation or the ballot box.

Key players: Hertzberg, anti-tax advocate Jon Coupal, union-backed advocate Lenny Goldberg

Technology

Expect debates about consumer data, Internet privacy and regulation of some Web-based businesses to loom large this session. The tech lobby beefed up its presence in Sacramento last year, with the Internet Association opening an office here – its first office outside Washington, D.C. The group was instrumental in rallying ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to oppose legislation increasing their insurance requirements. A similar effort to regulate home-sharing services is likely to emerge in the Legislature this year; one such company, Airbnb, recently retained a Sacramento lobbyist for the first time. The Assembly has established a new committee devoted to privacy and consumer protection, chaired by Assemblyman Mike Gatto. He is carrying a bill that would change the way Californians can use the Internet – it would permit playing poker online.

Key players: Gatto, Internet Association lobbyist Robert Callahan and the growing tech lobbying corps

Immigration

After legislation stalled last year to provide undocumented immigrants subsidized health care, Sen. Ricardo Lara is making another go of it. SB 4 would give immigrants who are in the country illegally – a group that is not covered by the federal Affordable Care Act – access to health insurance in California. Lara, a Bell Gardens Democrat, has also proposed creating a new state office to help immigrants acclimate to life in California. He’s been given a powerful position as chairman of the Senate’s appropriations committee, and will play a big role in deciding which spending bills live or die. The Legislature’s Latino caucus has been instrumental in backing legislation to expand the freedoms undocumented immigrants can enjoy in California. The caucus gets a new chairman this year: Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, who in 2013 carried a bill offering driver’s licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally. He has already introduced legislation for this session that could allow undocumented immigrants to work legally.

Key players: Lara, Alejo

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