Higher taxes to fund health care and road repairs lead the agenda for the California Legislature’s closing month of business.
As a summer recess recedes in the rearview mirror, state lawmakers return to Sacramento on Monday for the final stretch of the legislative year. They have already begun counting votes for high-priority special sessions, called by Gov. Jerry Brown, to handle health care and transportation funding.
“The very nature and gravitas a special session brings by the governor (being involved) means that we’re in a moment of real opportunity,” said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles.
Bills dealing with climate change and cannabis, as well as an unallocated budget bonanza, also loom large. Here’s what to watch for:
Year after year, local government representatives implore Sacramento to better fund transportation infrastructure. They brandish studies that detail creaking bridges and potholed roads and put the cost of repairs in the billions. They could finally see some relief.
Brown called for better transportation funding in his agenda-setting State of the State speech in January. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, months ago floated a plan incorporating a road user fee to offset dwindling gas tax revenue.
Winning Republican votes will be the crucial issue, since proposals to get more funding with higher gas taxes or vehicle licensing fees would require a two-thirds vote. While the minority party backs the principle of addressing transportation, their aversion to higher taxes has mostly confined them to proposing things like redirecting dollars from cap-and-trade auctions and truck weight fees or eliminating what they see as excess Caltrans jobs.
“There is already plenty of money in the budget,” said Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank. “There is sufficient revenue in state coffers today to fund and fix our roads.”
Complicating the quest for Republican transportation dollars is a separate push to augment health care revenue, which would also require a two-thirds vote. In calling for a special session, Brown has focused on replacing an expiring tax on managed care organizations, and legislation to accomplish that has emerged.
But a coalition of medical organizations is determined to better reimburse providers who accept Medi-Cal, California’s insurance policy for low-income residents. An unusual labor-hospital coalition has bankrolled a campaign to boost rates, and a similar group of union and medical advocates are pinning their hope to getting the revenue from a higher cigarette tax. They are taking no chances, pouring millions into a cigarette tax ballot measure to put extra pressure on lawmakers.
“A lot of legislators are seeing the impact in their districts and seeing the inability of many of their constituents to see a physician and get the treatment they need,” said California Medical Association CEO Dustin Corcoran.
Tobacco policy will sit high on the agenda even outside the tax: Attempts to raise the smoking age to 21 and treat electronic cigarettes as tobacco products, both of which stalled in committee this year, have resurfaced in special session bills that have the blessing of leadership.
“Having a special session that focuses on health care funding, there’s an acknowledgment we need to reduce smoking in our state” to reduce “the cost tobacco inflicts on Medi-Cal,” said American Cancer Society lobbyist Tim Gibbs.
When the governor and both legislative leaders advocate a policy, it has a fairly good chance of becoming law. So the odds were always good for a sweeping climate change bill that would slash California’s gasoline and diesel use and have half the state’s electricity flow from renewable sources.
What’s less clear is how it will work. From the start, utility companies have lobbied to shape which types of renewable energy would count.
“We are still busy negotiating around the clock,” de León said.
The road to passage has also become steeper. While Senate Bill 350 passed the upper house with votes to spare, oil companies opposed to the bill have bankrolled a statewide campaign of digital, television and billboard ads targeting moderate Assembly Democrats. De León denounced the push as a campaign of “distortion and misinformation.” Its industry backers say they are simply educating consumers.
“We’re looking at communities that we think would do well to be educated about this issue and whose members would appreciate hearing from their constituents,” said Beth Miller of the Western States Petroleum Association-backed California Drivers Alliance.
Another landmark environmental policy will spur a dollars-and-cents debate. This year’s budget passed with minimal friction, but Brown and lawmakers agreed to set aside for later one of the most contentious points: how to spend the approximately $2.7 billion reaped by the state’s cap-and-trade system of selling permits for carbon emissions.
Much of that money is already locked into a formula setting aside funds for areas like housing, transit and the high-speed rail project. That still leaves over a billion dollars that could fund a wide array of emissions-reducing projects.
Many lawmakers have ideas that would benefit their districts; Republicans want the money for road repairs. Lawmakers and the administration are debating how to divvy it up.
Another perennial problem could find resolution this year, as the prospect of voters legalizing recreational marijuana in 2016 has helped propel the most promising push yet to regulate medical cannabis. With the politically essential backing of cities and police, Assembly Bill 266 would create a system to license, permit and tax the plant.
The measure has cleared the Assembly floor and two Senate committees and now awaits judgment in the Senate Appropriations Committee – last year, a medical cannabis control bill advanced no farther than the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Pointing to the coalition they’ve built, backers hope this year will be different.
“We’re at a place that’s further along than any bill of this type in the history of California,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, the bill’s author. “I don’t think the level of this support at this stage in the game was the same” in past attempts.
Drones: Lawmakers have repeatedly wrestled with how unmanned aircraft collide with privacy and civil liberties. Senate Bill 142, which would bar drones from flying a certain distance over private property, has spurred a fight over privacy and the right to fly.
Death: A polarizing measure allowing doctors to prescribe dying Californians lethal drugs halted earlier this year for lack of votes. But the authors vowed they were not finished yet. Controversial bills have a way of resurfacing in the final month of a session, so keep an eye out for this one.
Domiciles: Affordable housing has long been a priority for Atkins, so her bill to create a dedicated housing fund looked like a legacy push for the terming-out Assembly leader. But Assembly Bill 1335 imposes a transaction fee that would need a two-thirds vote, which will be even tougher with health care and transportation requiring the same.