Capitol Alert

A rising force, moderate Democrats put their stamp on California legislative session

Democratic Assemblymen Kansen Chu of San Jose, left, and Rob Bonta of Alameda, confer during the Assembly session Thursday.
Democratic Assemblymen Kansen Chu of San Jose, left, and Rob Bonta of Alameda, confer during the Assembly session Thursday. The Associated Press

On the final day of the session Friday, Democrats who dominate the California Assembly labored to pass a watered-down measure expanding the state’s unpaid family leave policy.

They were at least eight votes short, with stiff resistance from business-friendly moderates in their party. Senate Bill 406 had been a major target for the California Chamber of Commerce, which placed the measure on its list of “job killer” legislation. Earlier, it had been weakened in the Assembly to reduce the number of businesses to which it would apply.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, paced the floor trying to drum up votes. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, energetically tugged at heartstrings, sharing a photo of a colleague’s newborn child. Later, as the bill hovered just below a majority, she shouted the names of lawmakers who hadn’t yet cast votes.

Ultimately, the bill cleared the Assembly by a single vote.

But the level of persuasion needed to advance even weakened legislation underscores the influence of moderate Assembly Democrats – a loosely formed group elected with the help of corporate interests. Their mark was most indelible on the just-completed session, where time after time they thwarted liberal legislation, from climate change to minimum wage.

“It seems to me, just like ‘Orange is the New Black,’ mod is the new ‘Cool Dem,’ ” Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said Saturday.

She said she’s observed a strategy of lobbyists on bills destined to pass the Senate.

“I hear them say, ‘We’ll stop it in the Assembly. We’ll just shut it down there,’ ” Mitchell said. “There really was that confidence. I don’t know that I heard that as consistently in past years.”

Nowhere was that more evident than Senate Bill 350, part of the high-stakes package of climate change measures championed by Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles. The bill advanced through the Legislature, but not before being stripped of language requiring a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use in motor vehicles by 2030. That version never came up in the Assembly.

Brown, a moderating force on fiscal issues, acknowledged “oil has won a skirmish.” De León lamented that lawmakers “could not cut through” the expensive advertising campaign by oil companies.

I think the real story is people having independent voices and standing up for their districts.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, a Merced Democrat who often sides with the powerful moderate bloc

Assemblyman Adam Gray, a Merced Democrat who often sides with the powerful moderate bloc, said much of the defiance came down to members unwilling to relinquish their oversight authority to a state commission he dismissed as “unelected bureaucrats.”

“Certain people tried to tell a story that this bill was about the oil producers,” Gray said. “I think the real story is people having independent voices and standing up for their districts.”

Some of the same members hastened the demise of another climate-related bill by Democratic Sen. Fran Pavley that sought to extend the state’s greenhouse gas emissions limit to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Moderates significantly altered or blocked several bills.

Last month, the Assembly Appropriations Committee refused to advance minimum wage legislation, inviting the fury of labor groups and some of their allies in the Legislature. Senate Bill 3, another “job killer,” originally proposed to hike the state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour in 2016 and $13 in 2017 and then index it to inflation starting in 2019. Last year, a similar proposal died in an Assembly committee.

Following the latest setback, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said the state should look into regional minimum wages that vary across the state.

As the clock ticked down on the session, there was hope among advocates that the lower house might resurrect a pair of tobacco-related bills when members huddled in caucus. Senators want to raise the legal smoking age to 21 and to regulate proliferating e-cigarettes as the state does tobacco products. Both measures cleared the Senate before running aground in the Assembly.

The Assembly also forced the diminution of a closely watched child care bill. De León, the author of Senate Bill 548, agreed to remove language authorizing state-funded child care workers to engage in collective bargaining and amended it with a requirement for orientation training.

Earlier this month, Mitchell suspended her latest bid to reverse a law barring families that conceive additional children while on welfare from receiving increases to their grant. As Senate Bill 23 awaited a vote on the Assembly floor, the senator said she would instead push to get the policy reflected in next year’s budget.

Mitchell said she was not prepared to credit moderate Democrats for most of the Senate bills that stumbled in the Assembly because some extended beyond “the mod caucus lens.”

“Some of the bills that were lost, and some of the people who did not support them, I find interesting because what I know of the communities they represent, it didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “I don’t know that they are voting based on the everyday concerns of the constituents they represent. I am not sure what their motivation is.”

Moderate Democrats raised twice as much from alcohol and tobacco interests as other Assembly Democrats.

Asked about the proliferation of business-linked Democrats in her caucus, Atkins largely downplayed their clout during a somber news conference announcing the SB 350 defeat, offering that “this feels like a typical legislative session to me.”

“Do I think there are interests out there that push their agendas? Absolutely,” Atkins said “That happens when I walk out my front door and my neighbor wants their sidewalk fixed.”

Part of what’s made the moderate contingent potent is its unofficial leadership and members. They do, however, derive financial support from many of the same sources. Moderate Democrats raised 15 percent of their contributions from labor, compared with the 19.4 percent for other Assembly Democrats, according to a campaign finance analysis from January 2013 to June. And the moderates took in 9.1 percent from energy and natural resource interests like oil companies, compared with 6 percent for other Democrats. The group has expanded in recent years, as the shift to a top-two primary system has given business donors a new avenue to influence a Legislature controlled by Democrats.

Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, noted the “obvious factor” that Assembly members must stand for re-election every two years instead of four. Less conspicuous are the self-imposed corporate fundraising restrictions on senators before they take up the budget, and during the last month of session. “The blackout period for the Senate helped us focus on policy and legislation” instead of attending the flurry of late fundraisers.

“Quite a long list of fundraisers took place in the Assembly,” Beall said, adding, “When you have the fundraisers, that distracts you quite a bit.”

Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, attributed the year’s dynamic in the Assembly to the state’s uneven economic rebound.

“It was the concern about all the cost impacts on the districts that still have higher unemployment, a much higher poverty rate – and they are voting their districts, their constituents,” he said.

As lawmakers headed for the doors Saturday morning, de León insisted the Senate still has the time to assert its priorities.

“I think the beauty of a two-year legislative session is that we’re done with the first half of the season and we have a second half of the season to play,” he said. “These policies that didn’t cross the finish line in 2015, we’re going to regroup and move forward to attain these policy changes. They are good proposals; and that was the reason they became Senate bills.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.