Capitol Alert

6 things to look for when the Legislature returns

Why California lawmakers want affordable housing money

After an April 25, 2016 press conference announcing a $1.3 billion affordable housing budget proposal, Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, explains why lawmakers are focused on housing.
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After an April 25, 2016 press conference announcing a $1.3 billion affordable housing budget proposal, Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, explains why lawmakers are focused on housing.

August is shaping up to be a busy month for California legislators, who return from their summer recess Monday to face a number of pressing issues.

Here are six issues that will be up for debate:

Affordable housing

It’s no secret that California has among the highest rents and home prices in the country and that they are steadily climbing higher.

“The state of California is facing a housing crisis of historic proportions,” said Ben Metcalf, director of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

The recent budget signed by Gov. Jerry Brown appropriates $400 million from the general fund for affordable housing, on top of money that’s earmarked for specific projects such as housing for the mentally ill and veterans. The money, however, comes with a string attached – legislative approval of “by right” development that would fast-track local approval for projects with affordable units.

Metcalf said the difficulty of getting approval for projects, in part due to “unnecessary litigation,” contributes to the housing shortage, and that Brown’s proposal would increase the available housing supply. Critics include environmental and labor groups who worry that the new process would allow developers to skirt regulations and pay lower wages.

Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, who pushed for more affordable housing dollars in the Assembly budget, said he will “need to see significant changes to the proposal,” including protections for rent-controlled and permanently affordable housing stock.

“I do hope that we’ll be able to engage on these issues in the coming weeks,” he said Friday. “I think we have to be working as quickly as possible to address this.”

If the Legislature acts, it will be through a bill attached to the budget. If an agreement is not reached, the appropriated money can’t be spent until a deal is struck in the next session.

Cap and trade

One issue looming large is the fate of California’s cap-and-trade program, set to expire in 2020.

Cap and trade is the result of a 2006 law, the California Global Warming Solutions Act. That bill set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state to 1990 levels by 2020 and permitted the air resources board to create a market for emission allowances to achieve that goal. The ARB auctions emission permits, which companies can then sell to each other.

Because allowances are sold three years ahead of time, the clock is ticking for the Legislature to act in order to reassure companies that they are worth buying. Dismal auction results in May could reflect fears that the program will not survive much longer.

Senate Bill 32, which cleared the Senate last year and is currently in the Assembly, would set a new emissions target of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The bill does not specifically reauthorize cap and trade, but could open the door for continuing the policy.

Further complicating the matter is a pending court case against the ARB arguing that cap and trade is an illegal tax and would require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature. Depending on how the court rules, the Legislature may have to revote to give cap and trade stronger legal backing.

Brown is a staunch advocate of cap and trade but has not endorsed a specific legislative proposal.

“We will not meet our world-leading clean air and emission reduction targets unless we solidify and redouble our commitment to the state’s cap-and-trade program and climate goals beyond 2020, and we will work hard to get that done,” Brown spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in an email Friday. “An extension will not only provide market certainty, but will ensure ongoing funding for clean energy programs, especially in vulnerable communities.”

Also at issue is how to spend the $1.4 billion of cap-and-trade auction revenue sitting in the state treasury.

Farmworkers’ overtime

A tense debate on the Assembly floor in June that had both sides quoting Scripture led to the defeat of Assembly Bill 2757, which would have given California farmworkers the same overtime pay requirements as other workers in the state. Now the bill’s author is looking for a second bite at the apple.

Assembly Bill 1066, authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, is a repeat attempt to require overtime pay for farmworkers working more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. The first bill, AB 2757, also authored by Gonzalez, was defeated 37-35 in early June.

Gonzalez said she is considering changes to the bill, including a delayed implementation for “extremely small family farms” that she said could pick up additional votes. Eight Democrats voted against the June bill and seven abstained.

Agricultural groups who opposed AB 2757 argued that the bill would cripple their businesses and that it could end up hurting farmworkers as growers cut back hours to avoid paying overtime, a claim that Gonzalez called “absolutely atrocious.”

“Nobody should be spending 12 hours a day every day in a field in 108-degree weather,” she said. “They’re people, not machines.”

Gonzalez did not disclose her vote count but said she was confident that enough of the eight Democrats who opposed and seven who abstained would come around after having additional time to examine the bill’s merits.

“If not, I’ll bring it back next year, because eventually humanity wins,” she said.

Ride sharing

Lawmakers are also bracing for the latest round in the sparring match between ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft and the state’s taxi companies.

In January 2015, the Department of Motor Vehicles issued an advisory that Uber and Lyft drivers would have to register for commercial plates, which require higher registration fees and significantly higher insurance premiums. Facing an uproar, the DMV hastily walked back on the memo.

Now a bill from Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, would extend the exemption for “transportation network companies” until the end of 2017 and order the Public Utilities Commission to study how to regulate ride-sharing companies.

Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, has spoken against allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to avoid paying commercial fees but allowed the bill to advance out of the Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee that he chairs. The bill is sure to draw opposition from the taxi industry.

Body cameras

Law enforcement issues have been propelled to the forefront of national debate after the well-publicized shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and police deaths in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.

A California bill that passed unanimously in the Assembly and is currently in the Senate would prohibit the release of an audio or visual recording of a police officer’s death without the approval of the officer’s family. Assembly Bill 2611, authored by Low, has drawn the criticism of the American Civil Liberties Union of California.

“We’re very concerned about it,” Kevin Baker, legislative director of the ACLU of California said Friday. “It seems to reflect quite a radical and unprecedented proposal about public records.”

Baker said his group is concerned both with the law itself and the precedent it sets. He said there could be a number of instances where the public has the right to see footage of an officer’s death, such as cases where there is officer misconduct or if an officer dies in a friendly-fire incident or due to equipment failure.

“The premise of the bill is that public documents should not be disclosed to the public because it might be upsetting to the family members of the person involved,” he said.

Transportation special session

The special session on transportation called by Brown last year in an effort to find money for highway and bridge maintenance is scheduled to end in November, but has not produced any legislation so far.

Two bills, one from Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, could have a chance of clearing the Legislature and provide a framework for transportation infrastructure spending.

Kiana Valentine with the California State Association of Counties, one of the groups involved in the negotiations, said Beall and Frazier have been working to combine their proposals. She said that CSAC is “cautiously optimistic” about a deal being reached and there is a “positive chance of something happening.”

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