With a room full of freshly sworn-in state legislators looking back at her, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, offered a few hints on Monday of how this incoming legislative class will differ from those who have governed California in years past.
The man Atkins heralded as the longest-tenured “dean” of the Assembly – Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles – was elected in 2010. He is 40 years old. Atkins later instructed new members on the mechanics of voting.
“Please insert and turn the key now,” Atkins explained. “If you lift up the desk and look back there,” she added, “you’ll find a key.”
A day of swearing-in ceremonies marked the first meeting of a California Legislature profoundly shaped by term limits, with a majority of members entering their first or second terms. This year’s election has also altered the political dynamics. While Democrats still dominate both the Senate and the Assembly, they no longer wield the two-thirds “supermajorities” they briefly secured in 2012.
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Legislators launched the new session by introducing bills covering policy areas ranging from the minimum wage to electronic cigarettes. And in an introduction to Sacramento’s workings, they were greeted by lobbyists and representatives of various interest groups at a cornucopia of special events.
Reaffirming choices they made last year, members chose Atkins to lead Assembly Democrats and elected Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, Senate president pro tem. The first Latino Senate leader in modern California history, de León spoke following a performance by a mariachi band and a bilingual prayer. He invoked his impoverished childhood as a sign that California can help disadvantaged children overcome difficult circumstances.
“I am living proof that the work we do here on this red carpet, on this Senate floor, matters,” de León said. “It matters for all children, regardless of who they are; regardless of where they come from; regardless of the color of their skin or the language they speak or (where) their parents come from; regardless of their legal status.”
In a speech that emphasized bipartisan accomplishments from the previous legislative session and spotlighted California’s economic recovery, Atkins won sustained applause for opposing a proposed University of California tuition increase. Lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown have clashed with the university system’s leadership over tuition, and the issue looks certain to surface in the Legislature this year.
“No Californian should be priced out of a UC education because they come from a middle-class family,” Atkins said.
Atkins has already laid out an alternative funding plan that she believes prevents tuition from rising. She said on Monday that the University of California’s budget would be subject this year to “zero-based budgeting,” in which officials must justify each item in their budget. The University of California last year derived about 40 percent of its $6.6 billion core budget, which covers academic operations, from the state’s general fund.
After the ceremonies lawmakers filtered out to receptions throughout Sacramento. At an event at Chops for new Assembly members, attendees mingled over glasses of wine and plates of nachos with representatives of interest groups that included labor unions, health insurance firms and optometrists.
A bipartisan delegation of legislators from the Central Valley greeted well wishers at Pizza Rock, while a handful of Democrats representing East Bay districts gathered with staff members and lobbyists at a bar inside the Citizen Hotel.
A mile away, on a gritty street near the American River, Sen. Bob Hertzberg – former Assembly speaker – hosted a party at the home he hopes will become a gathering place for political movers and shakers. The kitchen featured a huge counter-height table and 16 bar stools. The ground floor has been converted into a tequila bar with 400 different kinds of tequila, Hertzberg said. Murals cover the walls with paintings of spoof bottles honoring dozens of California politicians and lobbyists.
“Steinberg’s tequila, El Presidente,” says one bottle. “Vasconcellos’ tequila, Mr. Self Esteem,” says another.
“I wanted a place where I could convene people and really have discussions,” said Hertzberg, a Van Nuys Democrat, adding that he hopes to host discussions on issues like water policy and tax reform at his Sacramento home.
Lawmakers also announced a stack of new bills they will consider upon returning in 2015. The legislation included:
▪ Senate Bill 3 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, gradually boosting California’s minimum wage to $13 an hour.
▪ Assembly Bill 47 by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, expanding preschool access to all low-income children.
▪ AB 40 by Assembly members Phil Ting and Marc Levine, banning tolls on the Golden Gate Bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists.
▪ SB 4 by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, extending health care coverage to undocumented immigrants.
▪ SB 5 and AB 23, backed by the Republican caucuses in both houses to exempt oil and gas from California’s cap-and-trade law.
▪ AB 11 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, offering paid sick days to home health care workers who were exempted from landmark legislation last year giving all other Californians paid sick leave.
▪ AB 29 by Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, making the age of consent for sex 18 in civil cases.
▪ AB 54 by Central Valley lawmakers, allowing businesses to remain open while working to correct Americans with Disabilities Act violations.
▪ Bills by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, to limit the use of antibiotics on livestock (SB 24) and extend youth tobacco laws to electronic cigarettes (SB 27).
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.