Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Legislature shifts election year session into higher gear

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The Legislature reconvened for its election-year session nearly three months ago but so far has been operating in slow motion.

The session has been marked by desultory floor sessions devoted mostly to feel-good rituals and “informational hearings” by committees, many clearly staged to butter up interest groups and/or enhance legislators’ campaigns for re-election or other offices.

Some time was consumed by machinations over two Democratic senators facing criminal charges and their decisions to take indefinite leaves of absence, which erased, for the time being, the Democrats’ Senate supermajority.

The Capitol shifts into a higher, and perhaps more relevant, gear this week as the first of hundreds of bills introduced this year get initial committee airings.

They will be, most likely, the least controversial of this year’s crop of bills, but at least they’ll finally get the ball rolling.

Only a few are being carried by the tiny band of Republicans, because they know from past experience that if they introduce anything substantial, it will either be killed or be hijacked by the majority.

The year’s real action, therefore, will be on bills carried by Democrats, particularly the many measures on the agendas of such Democratic interest groups as unions, environmentalists, consumer activists and personal injury attorneys.

Requiring paid sick leave, raising the minimum wage, stopping the fracking of shale oil deposits, and lifting the cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases are just a few of the issues those groups are pursuing.

In response, the California Chamber of Commerce is assembling the list of “job killer” bills it considers to be most noxious, an annual exercise. Assembly Bill 1522, the mandatory sick leave measure, has already been tabbed.

Despite lopsided Democratic majorities, the chamber and other business groups have been remarkably successful in killing major bills they target, largely because of moderate Democrats whom business backed against more liberal rivals in primaries or, in some cases, in November runoffs under the “top-two” primary system.

As lobbyists for business and liberal groups renew their annual skirmishing in the Capitol over legislation, they’ll also be vying again in the electoral arena to tilt the Democratic majority to the left or the right.

The key marker to the outcome will be whether the Democrats’ rarely used supermajority margins in both legislative houses, achieved during a high-turnout presidential election two years ago, survive in an off-year election.

Of course, lobbying inside the Capitol and electioneering outside are intrinsically intertwined. Legislators vote on bills during the day. In the evening, they stage fundraising events to attract lobbyists for and against those bills.