Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Legislature turns to special interest battles in final week

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

As the 2012-14 biennial legislative session entered its final week Monday, it was evident – with very few exceptions – that big public policy issues have given way to conflicts among moneyed interests.

One of those exceptions is the regulation of groundwater, which ordinarily supplies about a third of California’s water supply, but in droughts such as the current one, that may rise to 50 percent.

Farmers have turned to their wells and underground aquifers to compensate for cutbacks of water from reservoirs and rivers and, many fear, so depleted them that the land is collapsing.

California is the only state without a formal groundwater regulation system. Environmental groups, among others, are pushing legislation, Senate Bill 1168, that would require regional “groundwater sustainability plans” to be written.

Farmers are not happy with the bill and are offering an alternative, Senate Bill 757, that was introduced just last Friday as a “gut-and-amend.”

The most prominent of the nearly 400 bills remaining on the Legislature’s agenda are of the other variety, pitting interest groups against one another.

California will not rise or fall on whether some milk prices are deregulated or Uber and other ride-sharing companies are regulated; whether plastic grocery bags are banned; whether employers must offer paid sick leave to workers; or whether the movie industry gets a $400 million tax subsidy to film in California.

However, the fate of those measures, as well as many others, have multimillion-dollar – and perhaps multibillion-dollar – consequences for their “stakeholders,” which is why they are spending lots of money in hopes of influencing the final votes this week.

Not surprisingly, therefore, legislators and legislative candidates have scheduled numerous fundraising events this week – although senators are banned by a new rule from raising funds during the final month of the session.

Campaign contributions, though, are only one aspect of the elaborate steps stakeholders in pending bills are taking to maximize their chances of winning.

Highly paid lobbyists and media operatives have been recruited, demonstrations are being staged (the movie industry put on its big show last week) and hurried negotiations are underway on compromises.

For instance, a union-backed bill that would compel employers to offer paid sick leave to their workers, Assembly Bill 1522, was amended last Friday to soften its provisions. Its author, San Diego Democrat Lorena Gonzalez, said she made the changes in hopes of persuading the California Chamber of Commerce to withdraw its often fatal “job killer” label.

The chamber had designated 27 bills as “job killers.” Going into the final week, just five remained viable, and four of them, including AB 1522, underwent revisions last week to improve their chances.

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