Capitol Alert

Why universal health care died in California

California’s universal health care bill never stood a chance this year.

The authors of Senate Bill 562, Democrats Ricardo Lara and Toni Atkins, didn’t include a way to pay for the far-reaching legislation, which was estimated to cost $400 billion to start.

Leaders of both houses had no detailed conversations about it with Gov. Jerry Brown, who publicly expressed deep skepticism about how to fund a program that’s more than twice the state budget.

All of this was happening as Brown and Democrats braced for Republicans in Washington to dramatically scale back health care spending for low-income people in California and beyond.

So when Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a policy wonk who says he supports universal health care, announced late Friday he was holding the bill in committee, he merely expedited the inevitable.

“It didn’t make any sense,” Rendon said of the state legislation. “It just didn’t seem like public policy as much as it seemed a statement of principles.

“I hope the Senate takes this chance to take the bill more seriously than they did before,” he added.

In an interview, he shot down accusations that a cohort of business-friendly Democrats in the Assembly or the health care industry influenced his decision to hold the bill, which sought to establish a system in California where the government would be the “single-payer” for health care. Other than the nurses, Rendon said, no other outside interest groups came to him to discuss the measure.

The nurses union and self-described Berniecrats came on strong, treating universal health care as a watershed issue for the Democratic Party. They warned about launching primary battles against legislators who didn’t vote for it. The scare tactic may have worked in the Senate, which passed the bill despite citing concerns about a lack of details.

But all that did was speed up its certain death in the Assembly. Rendon wanted to protect his caucus.

“For me, it’s important that our members are in a place where they don’t have to face those threats,” he said.

David Townsend, a political consultant who claims business-friendly Democrats and insurance companies among his clients, praised Rendon’s leadership amid escalating encouragement from the left.

“I think Speaker Rendon gets a lot of credit for protecting his members from a very stupid idea and making them all politically vulnerable for something that’s not going to happen anyway,” he said.

Townsend called the process “ludicrous” because the bill was approved in the Senate without a funding plan. Had the measure included a tax increase, it would have required a two-thirds vote, a threshold they were unlikely to reach.

“The speaker called bulls---,” he concluded. “More power to him.”

The nurses responded to Rendon’s action with indignation. Sen. Bernie Sanders said over the weekend that he was extremely disappointed with Rendon’s actions, and implored his supporters to demand a reversal.

On Twitter, the nurse’s leader, RoseAnn DeMoro‏, went further, posting a picture of the California bear with a butcher knife in its back. The blade of the weapon was inscribed with the word “Rendon.”

“#SinglePayer covers pre-existing backstabs,” DeMoro‏ wrote in the tweet. “Let’s tell (Rendon) to pull the knife out.”

Officials with the union pushed back against the idea that the bill wasn’t going to pass this year.

“Nobody said we could even get an author. Nobody gave us a chance in the Senate, either,” said Don Nielsen, the nurses’ director of government relations. “What we want is the will of the people to let this bill go. Let it be treated like any other bill would be treated. There is no need to protect any members. ... Protect them from whom, the voters? How ridiculous is that notion?”

“It’s not up to (Rendon) to predict whether it has a chance,” he added. “That’s a democratically arrived-at decision.”

Brown, who pledged to leave the state on firm financial footing, said earlier this year that he doesn’t understand the logic behind pushing another system like single-payer while Obamacare is imperiled.

“Where do you get the extra money?” he asked. “This is the whole question. I don’t even get ... how do you do that?

“This is called ‘the unknown by means of the more unknown.’ In other words, you take a problem, and say ‘I am going to solve it by something that’s ... a bigger problem,’ which makes no sense.”

Unlike Brown, and the Senate leader, Kevin de León, who must leave office after next year, Rendon could conceivably hold his position until 2024. On social media, his critics, including some who booed him at the state party convention last month, were already calling for a recall.

At the nurses’ urging, single-payer supporters lit up the phones in his Capitol office. While Rendon’s decision upset some, groups that included Planned Parenthood and the Service Employees International Union backed his position, exposing a divide within organized labor.

Atkins, who preceded Rendon as the Assembly speaker, said she’s “as disappointed as anyone” to see her bill stall, but could not fault him for keeping it from advancing.

“I can’t in good conscience do that,” Atkins said. “I have been in his shoes. I have had to look at very difficult issues.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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