Capitol Alert

California smoking bills in holding pattern, stalling lobbyist threat

Politically potent tobacco bills have not advanced to Gov. Jerry Brown a week after California legislators passed them, for now delaying the tobacco industry’s strategy to exact revenge with a referendum campaign.

As lawmakers rounded up votes for measures hailed by public health advocates as the toughest in years – including bills to raise the tobacco-buying age to 21, to regulate electronic cigarettes as tobacco products, and to allow cities and counties to place local tobacco tax increases on the ballot – tobacco industry lobbyists issued a pointed threat.

They vowed to punish lawmakers by launching a referendum campaign to repeal the laws and paying signature-gatherers enough money to divert them from other, unrelated ballot initiative campaigns that Democratic constituencies are trying to qualify for the November ballot.

“When we hit the street with referendum paying $10 per signature, Prop 30 is dead as well as $2 a pack tax,” a lobbyist for Altria wrote on the eve of a key Assembly vote, referring to measures to extend a tax on top earners and to impose a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes.

But the industry cannot mount a referendum campaign unless the bills are signed. As of Thursday, none of the six had moved on to Brown’s desk. Once they get there, the Democratic governor would have a 12-day window to act.

Legislative officials denied they were manipulating the process.

“There’s nothing going on at this point that I’m aware of to hold any of these things up,” said John Casey, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount. “They’re still in process at the desk.”

A spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, said the Senate measures remain in the “engrossing and enrolling” phase, one step short of Brown’s desk, so staff can properly review them. De León has previously carried legislation to raise the cigarette tax.

“There is nothing out of the ordinary,” spokeswoman Claire Conlon said.

The length of time to transmit an approved bill from the Legislature to the Governor’s Office varies widely. Last summer, eight weeks elapsed between when the Legislature approved SB 770, a measure dealing with medicated animal feed, and when it arrived on the governor’s desk. Brown signed it.

In other cases, the enrollment process has taken hardly any time at all. More than 200 bills have been on the governor’s desk within three days of lawmakers’ approval this session, records show. Earlier this month, Brown signed complex health plan tax legislation that cleared the Legislature only a day earlier.

Senators who carried the e-cigarette and age-raise bills acknowledged hearing rumors that the bills were being held for tactical reasons but said they had seen no concrete evidence. But both Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, condemned the tobacco industry for bullying lawmakers.

“I don’t think that would please Hiram Johnson,” Leno said. “I don’t think that’s what the people’s initiative process is all about.”

The governor said on Monday he has not yet decided how he will act on the bills.

“I haven’t given too much thought to that,” Brown said, “but I certainly will be.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert. Alexei Koseff and Jim Miller of the Bee Capitol Bureau contributed reporting.