Capitol Alert

California Legislature admits holding tobacco bills to stall threat

It was less than a week from Gov. Jerry Brown’s announcement of a historic $15 minimum wage deal to the signing ceremony in Los Angeles on Monday. So what’s the holdup for a package of equally landmark tobacco bills that passed out of the Legislature nearly a month ago and have yet to arrive on Brown’s desk?

In a word: politics.

Legislative officials acknowledged on Tuesday something they hadn’t before: the bills are being held to avert a threat from the tobacco industry to start a referendum campaign. They still have not determined when they plan to send the measures to the governor.

“Our job is to ensure the passage of these bills and not to help tobacco companies kill these bills,” Kevin Liao, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, said. “They've been willing to use aggressive tactics, so a tool that we have is when we release the bills to the governor.”

As lawmakers were debating last month whether to raise the smoking age to 21 and regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products, among other proposals, the industry was already threatening a referendum campaign that would derail other proposed ballot initiatives Democratic politicians have backed, including an extension of the Proposition 30 tax on wealthy Californians and a $2-a-pack tax increase on cigarettes.

“When we hit the street with a referendum paying $10 per signature, Prop 30 is dead as well as $2 a pack tax,” a lobbyist e-mail obtained by The Bee last month reads. “We will have every signature gatherer on an exclusive. Just letting you know so you can’t say you were not warned.”

The Legislature’s stall tactic – the smoking age and e-cigarette bills idle in the Senate, while four others, including a measure allowing localities to impose their own tobacco taxes, sit in the Assembly – prevents a referendum from moving forward.

Officials for both houses have previously denied they were manipulating the process.

Claire Conlon, spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, said last month the bills were held up in the “engrossing and enrolling” phase and there was “nothing out of the ordinary.”

In a statement Tuesday, she wrote, “Now that the enrolling and engrossing process has concluded, we will continue to take these threats seriously and do everything in our power to keep hostile out-of-state interests from subverting and tampering with our cherished democratic initiative process.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff