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Inside the Capitol: California News and Analysis

Where to find news about how the California Capitol works—the players, the policies that affect how state government affects you.

Inside the Capitol: California News and Analysis


April 24, 2019 5:19 pm

California’s hottest housing bill moves ahead—with a break for smaller counties

Data and Housing Reporter
Construction unions are among those supporting a state bill that would require cities to OK denser housing near transit—but the cities themselves are generally opposed.
Construction unions are among those supporting a state bill that would require cities to OK denser housing near transit—but the cities themselves are generally opposed to the idea.

A controversial bill that would force California cities to allow denser housing around public transit cleared a major hurdle today, but only after its sponsor agreed to go easier on smaller-sized counties.

Senate Bill 50, from Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, passed out of a key legislative committee after it was amended to take a softer approach to counties of less than 600,000 people.

While the bill still faces fierce political opposition and a long road ahead in the state Legislature, the vote marks a significant victory for Wiener’s move to promote more dense housing around transit—an approach he says is necessary to help alleviate the state’s housing shortage and curb greenhouse gas emissions from commuters.

Originally, the bill would have required all California neighborhoods within a half-mile of a major public transit stop to allow apartment buildings four to five stories tall. No longer would cities be able to restrict zoning around transit to exclusively single-family homes, for example.

“We know what we need to do,” Wiener said at today’s hearing, in a Capitol hearing room overflowing with advocates on both sides of  the issue. “You can have all the funding for affordable housing in the world and all the streamlining in the world, but if you don’t have zoning changes, it’s all for naught.”

The original provision would still apply to the 15 most populous California  counties, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Joaquin counties. “Jobs-rich” communities not within a half-mile of public transportation would also have to change local zoning laws to allow for taller buildings.

But under the new compromise, smaller counties—including those with expensive real estate markets such as Marin, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo—would be treated differently.

Most cities in those smaller counties would be forced to allow housing near public transit that’s slightly more dense than what’s currently allowed, but not 4-5 stories. They also would also be required to approve duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes “by right” in almost all neighborhoods, allowing developers to bypass the often lengthy and costly process of getting small housing projects approved by local planning commissions and city councils.

The new provisions for smaller counties incorporate elements of what was a rival plan from Sen. Mike McGuire, Democrat from Healdsburg,  who chairs the Senate Governance and Finance committee that held today’s vote.

“A blanket one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work for every community here in California,” said McGuire, whose district includes famously anti-development Marin County.

Advocates for Wiener’s bill point out that even the weaker density requirements on smaller counties could lead to a substantial boost to new housing—and that the “four-plex” provision in particular means an end to neighborhoods zoned exclusively for single-family homes. The city of Minneapolis made national headlines for a similar law last year.

Today’s vote is a noteworthy victory for Wiener, whose try at similar legislation last year failed to advance this far.

Several politically influential groups that opposed last year’s legislation are now on board, or at least aren’t explicitly opposed. Construction labor unions have thrown their weight behind the bill, while several housing equity groups concerned about the bill’s potential to gentrify lower-income neighborhoods are still negotiating with Wiener.

But California cities up and down the state still view SB 50 as an unprecedented encroachment on local control over housing decisions. While the most fierce opposition has come from smaller municipalities, the Los Angeles City Council and San Francisco Board of Supervisors have  adopted resolutions opposing the bill.

“It’s not one-size-fits-all, its two-sizes-fits-all,” said David Reyes, a Pasadena city planner testifying against the bill even as amended. He warned that the state can expect cities to sue to block Wiener’s bill if it becomes law.

Some tenant rights and anti-gentrification groups, including those affiliated with the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, testified against the bill today. A controversial flyer from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation sent to San Francisco households compared SB 50 to the “urban renewal” programs of the mid-20th century, invoking the image of African-American author James Baldwin, who called such programs “Negro removal.”

“Frankly, we have too many deep concerns about SB 50’s impacts, even with the amendments on low-income communities of color, to support it,” testified Shanti Singh of Tenants Together.

Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat from San Jose who opposed Wiener’s legislation last year, said his support for the bill this year was conditioned on passage of a broader housing package, which would include new funding sources for low-income housing and more tenant protections.

“If there’s not a package we’ll continue to have  conflicts,” said Beall.

Even if the bill were to pass the Legislature, it’s unclear whether Gov. Gavin Newsom would sign it. Newsom has floated several proposals aimed at reaching his goal of 3.5 million new California homes by 2025, but has balked at publicly supporting SB 50.

 

 

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May 22, 2019 9:06 pm

Charter school curbs pass Assembly, but drama foretells compromise

K-12 Education Reporter
A charter school reform narrowly passed the Assembly as teachers unions rallied outside the Capitol.
Teachers unions rallied in Sacramento as the Assembly narrowly passed part of a package of charter school reforms. Photo for CALmatters by Ricardo Cano

Legislation that would give local school districts more control over charter-school authorizations narrowly passed the California State Assembly Wednesday in a dramatic vote that served as an initial litmus test for a package of consequential, union-backed charter regulation bills.

For nearly an hour, Assembly Bill 1505 stood just shy of a handful of the 41 votes required to advance to the Senate, in part because of concerns the bill went too far in limiting the ability of charter schools to appeal authorization denials from local school districts to county and state education boards.

Only one Republican, Jordan Cunningham, ended up voting yes on the measure. Many moderate Democrats initially were reluctant to support it, but support in the final tally included a mix of mods and liberal Democrats. Seventeen members chose not to vote.

When the bill finally passed 44-19-17, it was with an assurance from  Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, the bill’s author, that the bill would be amended to include a “fair” appeal process.

“We knew this was going to be a fight because this is a heavily political matter,” O’Donnell said following the floor vote. “Charter schools have a lot of resources that public schools don’t on the political front, and they employ them in the state Capitol, and we saw that today.”

AB 1505, 1506 and 1507 and Senate Bill 756, put forth as a charter regulation package, have pitted teachers unions and supporters of traditional public schools against advocates of charter schools, which are public but mostly non-union. The two education interests are among Sacramento’s most powerful, and until this past election, when union candidates triumphed in races for governor and statewide schools chief, they have largely fought to a draw.

If passed, the package of proposals would make the most significant changes in a generation to the state’s 27-year-old charter school laws. They would give local school boards more power over authorizations, enact a statewide cap on charters, prohibit districts from authorizing charters outside their geographic boundaries—and impose a two-year moratorium if the Legislature doesn’t make specific reforms by the end of this two-year session.

Supporters and legislators backing the bills say the proposed regulations are long overdue and describe them as common-sense reforms to a sector of public education that has grown too quickly, especially in cities. Charter advocates say the bills threaten the existence of an important alternative to an overworked, underfunded public school system that offers too little choice and inadequately serves low-income neighborhoods.

One of those bills, AB 1507, already passed the Assembly earlier this month by a decisive margin, 54-18. That bill is aimed at closing a loophole that has allowed several small school districts to boost their budgets by mass-authorizing charter schools outside their boundaries, in some cases by hundreds of miles. Earlier versions of AB 1507 had passed the full Legislature, only to be vetoed by former Gov. Jerry Brown.

During more than an hour of intense debate on the Assembly floor, several members of the Democratic majority admitted to mixed feelings. Some legislators said they were concerned the lack of an appeal process endangered charter schools with track records of good student performance.

Others wanted to reserve judgment pending a parallel effort by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who, at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request, is leading a highly-anticipated study that will provide recommendations on charter regulations this summer.

And several legislators said they believe the state’s finite funding for public schools has exacerbated tensions between charter schools and school districts and called for more school funding.

“I’m really torn over this bill,” said Al Muratsuchi, a Democratic Assemblyman from Torrance. “I want to support any measure that will crack down on bad charter schools, because we know we know that there are too many bad charter schools out there and we should shut them down. My concern is that this bill may risk shutting down good existing charter schools.”

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Diego, said Wednesday’s vote was a “tough subject” for her, too, as both a supporter of labor and a charter school parent.

“On the one hand, I completely agree with the innovation that some charter schools are engaging in,” Gonzalez said. “My understanding of the (charter) movement is it was supposed to be very limited, and we were supposed to take that innovation and scale it so that every kid in every public school would have those same opportunities.”

Gonzalez voted in favor of the bill, and said, “It’s time to press pause, bring people together (and) figure out how we get back to what this movement was supposed to be.”

The scene at the Capitol during the bill’s hour of uncertainty was hectic. Earlier in the day, about 2,500 teachers had marched the streets of downtown Sacramento in a rally organized by California Teachers’ Association, which supports the charter bills, and several of those teachers lined up outside the offices of on-the-fence Democrats to lobby for “yes” votes. Others were crowded into the Assembly’s gallery, watching, and cheered when the bill finally got enough votes to pass.

The California Charter Schools Association, which opposes the charter bills, had also organized a smaller “black parent strike” in which several protesters held signs that read, “The System Wants to Trap My Son in a Failing School.”

“We are deeply dismayed by today’s vote which demonstrates a limited understanding and respect for the needs of public school families and students across the state,” Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the state’s charter association, said in a statement following Wednesday’s vote. She described AB 1505 as “politically motivated and a slap in the face to parents and families who deserve to choose the best school for their children.”

O’Donnell acknowledged that “today’s bill thus far is the most controversial (charter) bill” state lawmakers have debated this year. He said its passage is significant because “a couple of years ago, we wouldn’t be able to get this bill through the state Legislature because of the political might that charter schools have.”

“The California Charter Schools Association’s sole mission is to have no change,” O’Donnell said. “And what they are witnessing and we are witnessing is a Legislature that’s awake, that’s watching, and wants to ensure that charter schools are held accountable and held transparent.”

Charter school backers rally at California's Capitol against bills to curb the growth of charter schools, Wednesday, May 22, 2019.

As teachers unions rallied in the Capitol to curb charter school growth, proponents of the mostly nonunion charter schools staged a smaller demonstration. Photo for CALmatters by Ricardo Cano

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May 22, 2019 5:22 pm

Why California’s efforts to limit soda keep fizzling

Political Reporter
Soda tax, Big Soda, beverage industry, California
Despite public health warnings, the beverage industry is continuing to block efforts to tax sugary sodas in California.

Earlier this year, Democrats in the state Capitol introduced several measures intended to limit Californians’ consumption of soda, arguing that rotting teeth and rising diabetes presented a public health crisis demanding action akin to regulations on cigarettes. They proposed taxing soda, banning Big Gulps, prohibiting in-store discounts on soft drinks, banishing them from the front of convenience stores, and slapping safety warning labels on all sugary beverages from Coca-Cola and sports drinks to sweet tea and chocolate milk.

The soda industry responded by drastically ramping up its lobbying in the statehouse, more than tripling the amount it spent in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year.

Now, as the Legislature hits the session’s halfway point, three of the anti-soda measures have fizzled. The two that remain in play—one prohibiting discount pricing on soda and another requiring warning labels—face difficult floor votes by the end of the month, as some lawmakers are likely to argue that the measures amount to “nanny government.” (Updated May 23: The Senate approved, barely, the bill to require soda warning labels, which now goes to the Assembly.)

Soda’s success so far in thwarting an agenda backed by doctors, dentists and public health advocates shows that despite Democrats’ historically large majority, some corporate interests remain influential in a Capitol dominated by varying shades of blue. The soda industry has gained clout by spending millions on lobbying and campaign donations, hiring well-connected former Capitol aides and forming alliances with labor unions that lend additional political muscle.

“There is no doubt that the industry has a very strong voice in Sacramento and unlimited resources. That’s a tough opponent,” said Sen. Bill Monning, who is carrying the bill to require warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages.

“So we try to use moral persuasion, health persuasion to overcome the political forces.”

Monning, a Carmel Democrat, points to research by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows drinking sugary beverages is associated with obesity, diabetes and other ailments. Nationwide, the CDC report says, 63 percent of youth and 49 percent of adults drink a sugary beverage on a typical day—though consumption is lower in California than in most of the states surveyed, and other reports suggest Americans are drinking more water and less soda since the time of the CDC study.

Monning has carried several unsuccessful bills to tax soda or require warning labels. His current measure would require that sugar-sweetened drinks sold in California carry a notice saying: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) may contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay.”

He recently narrowed the bill to drop the requirement on flavored milk. No surprise, that hasn’t appeased soda companies.  

“There are already more effective ways to help people manage their overall sugar consumption rather than through mandatory and misleading messages,” said a statement from Steve Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant working for the American Beverage Association, which includes Coke, Pepsi and the Dr. Pepper Snapple company and which is promoting their drinks with less sugar than standard sodas.

The association hired Fredericka McGee, an attorney and longtime Capitol aide who advised five Assembly speakers, to lead its government affairs in California. The last speaker McGee worked for was Toni Atkins, who is now the leader of the state Senate.

In the first three months of this year, the lobbying operation McGee oversees involved taking 5 legislators and 16 aides to a Sacramento Kings basketball game, and treating many of them to food and drinks. Such goodies account for nearly $6,800 of the $273,704 the American Beverage Association spent on lobbying during the first quarter—a massive jump from the  $76,754 it spent during the same period last year. Much of the spending this year went toward hiring political strategists and pollsters who worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.

Lobbying ramped up, Maviglio said, in response to the “very comprehensive and well-financed attack on the beverage industry.” Associations representing dentists and doctors, which support the anti-soda bills introduced this year, also spend big bucks lobbying in the statehouse and bestowing legislators with campaign cash. The California Medical Association spent $457,219 lobbying in the first quarter of this year, though it reported work on far more bills than the soda group.

As soda companies fight proposals they believe could harm their business, the message is often amplified by labor unions that carry clout in a Democratic-controlled Legislature. Roughly 25,000 Californians work in the soda industry, many of them in union jobs at bottling plants or delivering beverages to stores and restaurants. Fearing that a decline in soda drinking will reduce their jobs, Teamsters are lobbying against the bill to require warning labels, as they did against the measure to tax soda to pay for public health programs, which stalled last month.

“When the employer that has a unionized workforce and the union are on the same side in a legislative fight, it is a very powerful message,” said Shane Gusman, the Teamsters’ lobbyist.

Hearing the concern from workers makes some Democrats think twice about health policies that could hurt the middle class, Gusman said. The soda tax stalled when the chair of the Assembly’s tax committee said she couldn’t support a regressive tax that would burden people who are poor.

The argument that cracking down on soda would be costly to families would likely have emerged had the ban on Big Gulps advanced to a vote. Its author, Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu, pulled the bill before lawmakers could vote on it, following a Twitter dig from one of his fellow Democrats.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who wields significant power as chair of the appropriations committee, said later that her tweet was a joke, not a policy position. Still, the comment was a clear indication of where debate in the Capitol was heading. The National Association of Theatre Owners made the same argument as Gonzalez in opposing Chiu’s bill. Retailers argued that a size ban wouldn’t decrease consumption because customers would just refill their cups.

“I didn’t mean it in any way to affect the outcome of the bill,” Gonzalez said. “It was just a comment about what happens at the movie theater with my family.”

Soda politics roiled the Capitol last year when the industry teamed up with the powerful Service Employees International Union to get lawmakers to ban cities from passing new taxes on soda or other grocery items until 2031. Frustrated with local soda bans voters approved in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, beverage companies last year poured $8.3 million into a committee crafting a statewide ballot measure that sought to raise the threshold necessary to pass a new tax.

Labor unions wanted to keep the lower threshold but didn’t want to spend money fighting the ballot measure. So they struck a deal: If soda companies pulled their initiative off the ballot, the union would support a ban on local grocery taxes. Lobbying together, SEIU and the soda companies persuaded the Legislature to pass the deal, which then-Gov. Jerry Brown promptly signed into law.

But the deal does not preclude a statewide tax on soda, something doctors and dentists are now working on as they craft an initiative for the 2020 ballot. They’re building an argument that soda industry tactics are similar to those of cigarette companies, and should be taxed and regulated accordingly.

“We saw in the early days of the tobacco fight that it was hard to shake the influence of industry in the Legislature,” said Anthony York, a spokesman for the California Medical Association.

“Tobacco regulation and taxes had more success… going to voters. And you’re seeing a similar dynamic here, quite frankly. The public is ahead of where their regulators are in many places.”

Or maybe health advocates are taking a page from soda’s successful playbook, crafting a ballot initiative they can use as leverage to get what they want from the Legislature next year.

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May 16, 2019 6:56 pm

In housing, privacy and more, a Capitol lightning round nixes controversial bills

Political Reporter
One hand with thumbs up, another with thumbs down. Blue background.
This year’s annual culling of the legislative suspense file dispatched with hundreds of bills—including some high-profile ones—at lightning-round speed,

Some of the most contentious ideas California lawmakers were considering this year—to expand internet privacy protections and require denser housing development—were jettisoned Thursday as the Legislature culled hundreds of bills in a fast-and-furious annual procedural ritual.

Decisions on the “suspense file,” as it’s known, mark a do-or-die moment in the lawmaking process. Reeled off at auctioneer-like speed, the pass-or-hold calls are traditionally made with little or no public discussion or explanation.

Officially, the practice lets beancounters in each house weigh costly proposals against each other and prioritize how the Legislature should spend taxpayer dollars. Unofficially, it’s a way for powerful lawmakers to quietly kill bills before they get to the floor of a chamber—without debate or even a public vote.

The Assembly appropriations committee considered 721 bills Thursday, a bigger load than at any time in the last decade. Lawmakers—aware of swelling tax revenues and a new governor who campaigned on an agenda to expand government services like health care and child care—have been pitching plenty of ideas for spending money. The Senate, which has half as many members as the Assembly, considered 355 bills in its appropriations lightning round.

Despite Democrats holding roughly three-quarters of the seats—the largest majority since the 19th century—the influence of big business was evident in many of their decisions, revealing the Legislature’s varying shades of blue. Tech, oil, insurance companies and other moneyed interests succeeded in killing some measures backed by advocates for privacy, the environment and mental health.

Here’s where things landed when the sorting was done.

Housing

Remember the “gentler, still incredibly controversial housing bill” introduced last December that would have forced cities to allow for denser development across the state? Apparently, it was still a little too controversial.

Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 50 is on ice until next year. Consider this a major setback for those who think increasing supply is the main solution to the state’s housing crisis. Needless to say, Wiener was not pleased, releasing a statement saying: “At some point, we will need to make the hard political choices necessary for California to have a bright housing future.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom also expressed his disappointment, saying that “today’s developments can’t end or stall” the “critical conversation” around denser development. There are other reasons for him to worry. SB50 represented a key pillar of a potential housing package that Newsom will need if he wants to come close to meeting his ambitious housing goals.

But it wasn’t all bad news for those who want to build more homes. A proposal by East Bay Sen. Nancy Skinner to forbid high-cost cities from “downzoning”—reducing allowable building heights, imposing new construction moratoriums, and charging higher “impact” fees to new residential construction—passed committee and is advancing to the Senate floor. 

—Ben Christopher

Data privacy

The Legislature appears unlikely to pass any major bills this year to expand consumer protection under a landmark data privacy measure they passed in 2018. The Senate appropriations committee killed a bill that would have given Californians the ability to sue internet companies that breach the privacy law, after businesses argued it would lead to a “class action bonanza.”

Last month, one Assembly bill stalled that would have stopped companies from charging consumers more if they opt out of data collection, as did another that would have required social media companies to permanently delete data when people delete their account.

The privacy law the Legislature rushed to pass last year was the result of a compromise between tech companies and privacy advocates, spurred by the threat of a ballot measure that would have amounted to a costly fight. Because they reached a deal hastily, the law was written to take effect in 2020, giving both sides an extra year to lobby for changes.

A few bills still remain in play, including one that would prohibit companies from saving the voice commands people give smart speakers such as Amazon’s Alexa (unless consumers give written permission), and another that privacy advocates are trying to stop because it would allow businesses to give consumer data to government agencies.

Laurel Rosenhall

Taxes

Legislative leaders sought to minimize new taxes amid a $21 billion-plus surplus.

Sen. Pro Tem Toni Atkins threw her support behind a safe drinking water fund to clean up contaminated water in the Central Valley only after removing a 95-cent monthly water fee that had been backed by the governor. The bill, by Sen. Bill Monning of Carmel, instead relies on about $150 million a year from the general fund.

“California’s drinking water challenges are too urgent to ignore,” Atkins said in a statement. “This proposal creates a sustainable funding source to bring desperately needed relief to the communities in need.”

In January, Newsom had incorporated Monning’s proposal in his budget by calling for a 95-cent monthly water meter fee as well as taxing fertilizer and dairy production, both contributors of unsafe drinking water in the region. Atkins’ move gives supporters the clean water fund without having to raise taxes.

Decisions were put off for other tax proposals. For example, a proposed $25 firearms tax by Assemblyman Marc Levine was turned into a two-year bill. It aimed to raise $13 million a year to fund violence intervention programs.

And it’s not clear if women will get to stop paying taxes on tampons and other feminine products. Newsom embraced the tampon tax exemption in his budget update, but AB 31 by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia was turned into a two-year bill. The bill would cost the state an estimated $8.8 million in sales tax each year so the issue may be resolved through the budget bill.

Other tax proposals, including a soda tax, a tire change fee and an oil severance tax, all died before even making it to the appropriations committee. Assemblyman Richard Bloom announced last month that his AB 138 was being held in another committee. He had proposed a 2-cent-per-fluid-ounce tax on sugary drinks, and the soda industry was prepared to mount intense lobbying.

—Judy Lin

Mental health 

Another casualty of the day was SB 11, which would have stiffened the requirements for health insurers to make annual reports to the state about their compliance with laws requiring them to provide equivalent levels of care for physical and mental illness, including substance abuse. It also would have made that information available to the public.

A majority of Californians—and two-thirds of those who’ve sought treatment for mental illness—say people with mental health conditions are not able to get the treatment they need, according to a 2018 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation and California Health Care Foundation.

The bill had the backing of mental health advocacy groups, but faced opposition from the health insurance industry, health plans and the California Chamber of Commerce.

It marks yet another failed attempt by state Sen. Jim Beall, Democrat from San Jose, to strengthen parity provisions. He vowed to keep pushing “to remove barriers to treatment for people who are suffering.”

—Jocelyn Wiener

Environment

A few environmental bills were killed in today’s legislative haircut—including SB 332 that aimed to increase reuse of treated wastewater by restricting how much can be released into the ocean. A controversial proposal to prohibit new oil and gas operations within 2,500 feet of homes, schools, playgrounds and healthcare facilities also stalled, though environmentalists who support it vowed to keep trying next year. The delay marks a win for the oil and gas industry, which opposed the measure.

But other bills to increase regulation of the oil and gas industry will make it to a floor vote, including a proposal to block the state from leasing public lands for construction of new infrastructure intended to transport oil from federally protected land. A bill to improve planning for spills of particularly difficult-to-clean types of oil that sink rather than slick across the surface of a body of water survived, as did a proposal to require that wells being plugged and abandoned get tested for leaks.

Trash will make it to a floor vote, as well, with a new proposal to increase recycling of single-use products and packaging. And the state’s stand against federal deregulation continues with SB 1’s survival. The bill—a second go, after a similar measure died last year—proposes that if federal standards for occupational safety, air and water quality, and endangered species protections drop below where they were set before President Donald Trump took office, the state can stick to those pre-Trump standards instead.

Rachel Becker

Health care

Lawmakers nixed two bills to help caregivers—one that would have given family caregivers a tax credit to offset expenses and another that sought to create a California Care Corps to get young people to care for seniors for a year or two.

Residents in a part of Los Angeles lost out as a bill seeking $100 million to expedite the clean-up of lead at the now-shuttered Exide Technologies Battery Plan failed. (The Legislature has previously approved funding for the clean-up, but the state agency overseeing the project has been criticized for how slow it’s going.)

A Senate proposal to provide Medi-Cal coverage to undocumented immigrants was also approved but it was narrowed to mirror the governor’s budget proposal—covering only those between 19 and 26 years old, instead of all undocumented immigrants.

And health care bills pitched in response to the federal attack on the Affordable Care Act are moving forward, including one to pay for subsidies for middle-income families and another requiring that all Californians have insurance.

—Elizabeth Aguilera

K-12 education

Big-ticket early childhood and K-12 education bills sailed smoothly through Thursday and are heading for a floor vote.

Those include proposals to mandate later school start times, expand subsidized preschool, offer alternatives to Smarter Balanced testing, curb charter school growth, lower parcel tax thresholds and create a statewide “cradle to career” longitudinal database.

Many of these bills are proposals that state legislators have revived from previous sessions or are ones that strongly align with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s education agenda.

But even though these bills cleared the “suspense file,” some are still likely to evoke prolonged debates among legislators in the coming months—particularly AB 1505 and 1506 and SB 756, the package of charter-school regulation bills.

SB 756, which initially proposed a five-year moratorium on new charter schools in California unless the state passes specific regulations, was amended Thursday to a two-year moratorium.

—Ricardo Cano

Higher education

The Legislature is poised to make some big decisions on college affordability, with bills that would double the state’s financial aid investment, help community college students cover their living expenses, and waive tuition for two years of community college all advancing to a floor vote.

Consumer advocates cheered the survival of measures that would create stricter oversight of for-profit colleges and student loan servicers. Proposals to tighten UC admissions rules in the wake of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal and provide more on-campus mental health counselors will also move forward.

In a Legislature dominated by Democrats, however, Republicans pushing their own ideas to address college costs failed to convince their colleagues across the aisle: Bills that would have allowed students to promise public colleges a percentage of their future income instead of paying tuition and to borrow against their financial aid to buy textbooks both died in the Assembly appropriations committee.

—Felicia Mello

Gun control

Earlier this year, 16 Democratic lawmakers announced the legislature’s first ever firearm “working group” and vowed to send the governor a package of gun control bills.

So far, that working group is working out pretty well. Five bills entered today’s Appropriations committee hearings and four came out.

The lone loser was the fee on new gun sales (see “Taxes” above). Proceeds from the tax would have gone to the California Violence Intervention and Prevention program, which distributes grants to groups that disrupt street violence.

Instead, the CalVIP program may be able to count on Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks’ AB 1603, which calls for a permanent funding source and which sailed through the committee today. So did proposals to regulate home-made ghost guns, to limit the purchase of handguns to one per month, to train police on how to remove guns from those under a restraining order all sailed through.

Learn more about the history of California’s gun laws with this in-depth multimedia explainer.

—Ben Christopher

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May 16, 2019 5:17 pm

California’s hottest housing bill was just unexpectedly shelved. What you need to know:

Data and Housing Reporter

Political Reporter
Photo courtesy of Valley Transportation Authority
Photo courtesy of Valley Transportation Authority

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:24 PM, May 27 to reflect new comments from Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins.

Shock. Depression. Relief.

Those were just some of the reactions as the year’s most controversial state housing bill met its sudden demise. But very few people—supporters, opponents, and even the author himself—can claim to have seen this coming.

In a procedural vote this morning, Senate Bill 50, which would have prohibited many cities from banning four-to-five-story apartment buildings around public transit and effectively ended local zoning rules exclusively reserved for single-family homes, failed to advance out of a key state Senate committee.

Its fate dealt an unexpected setback to pro-development forces in the state Capitol and a major victory for defenders of local control over housing decisions. It also throws an obstacle into Gov. Gavin Newsom’s path as he tries to goad the state into building a lot more housing.

While it’s theoretically conceivable that the bill could be resuscitated this year, odds are the earliest it will be reconsidered is January 2020.

“Even though this is an intensely controversial bill, we were in a good place and thought we had the votes on the Senate floor,” said author Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat. “It was surprising to me when I learned that the bill was going to be converted into a two-year bill.”

Urbanist “Yes In MY Backyard” (YIMBY) groups, developers and other supporters are mourning the bill’s postponement as yet another roadblock to building the new housing the state so desperately needs, while representatives for many cities and some tenants-rights and slow- growth groups cheered the outcome.

“We were told from the beginning that the bill was green lit and was going through no matter what,” said Jill Stewart of the Coalition to Preserve LA, one of the bill’s most vociferous opponents. “The wheels of democracy do start turning when something wrong is happening—and in this case something very wrong was happening.”

What to make of all of this? Here are some key takeaways:

Wiener had an impressive, potent coalition behind him. Once again, it wasn’t big enough. 

No this isn’t exactly déjà vu. Last year, Wiener introduced a similar bill that attempted to take away the power of cities to limit what types of housing can be built within a half-mile of public transit.

Despite receiving a good deal of national publicity, that bill failed with a resounding thud in its first committee vote.

This time around, Wiener built a much broader coalition. Among its supporters: not only developers and Realtors, but construction labor unions, senior citizens and mayors of many major cities, including San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento. Many anti-gentrification groups that opposed last year’s legislation were satisfied with tenant protections in this year’s version and remained neutral. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times’ editorial boards endorsed the bill.

The new coalition was instrumental in getting the bill through two earlier committee votes, and gave proponents confidence that the legislation could be shepherded through the state Senate without significantly more pushback.

But supporters didn’t count on Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from the La Cañada Flintridge area and the chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Portantino’s district includes Pasadena, whose city representatives were some of the bill’s most vocal opponents.

“My preference has always fallen on the side of incentives for local governments to accomplish goals,” Portantino said in a statement, expressing concerns about the bill’s “unintended consequences,” including gentrification and discouraging public transit expansion.

The bill was among those Portantino’s committee suffocated as it sifted through its biannual suspense file—a rapid-fire approach to legislation that allows lawmakers to quickly pass favored bills while quietly dispatching others, either by holding them in committee or redesignating them “two-year bills,” effectively killing them for a year.

The bill’s death could jeopardize a broader housing package—including tenant protections.

“To have a meaningful housing package that actually does something,” said Wiener, “it has to have a strong production component, a strong tenant protection component, and a strong affordable housing funding component. The beauty of a package is that everyone comes together…and everyone swallows some measures they do not love.”

With the premature demise of the signature “strong production” bill of the year, the coalition that backed the bill may have a harder time sticking together in support of the tenant protection bills that remain.

Take for example, San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu’s AB 1482, an anti “rent gouging” bill opposed by the state’s landlord lobby.

“I hope and believe that all stakeholders know how important it is for us to keep pushing on critical solutions to the crisis,” Chiu said, adding that he was “surprised” and “very disappointed that the SB50 conversation will not be continuing this year.”

“I don’t know how excited the business community is to get on board with something that doesn’t include production of new housing,” said Matt Lewis, spokesman for California YIMBY, one of the bill’s cosponsors. “So if there isn’t another (bill) for production, does this mean that the governor’s housing agenda is D.O.A.?”

Newsom never explicitly supported the bill, although he regularly expressed interest in the idea while on the campaign trail. He has also vowed to see the state produce an addition 3.5 million new units within the next eight years—a goal that most experts say is infeasible, but would almost certainly require radical zoning reform to achieve.

In a statement, Newsom said he, too, was “disappointed” with the outcome and that “developing housing around transit must also be part of the solution, and today’s developments can’t end or stall that critical conversation.”

Still, many of the bill’s backers expressed frustration that the governor and Senate leader Toni Atkins didn’t do more to help shepherd it through the legislative process.

“We’re past the idea of good intentions and wonderful rhetoric around this issue,” said Michael Lane, deputy director of Silicon Valley at Home, an affordable housing group. “We need real political will and that means intervention from leadership to really get this done. It’s not going to happen on its own.”

Wiener said that he had “absolutely no criticism of the governor’s office.”

Is this the end of the idea? No—but this year, the fight looks over.

Is it possible that Wiener’s bill could come back from the dead? Crazier things have happened.

California YIMBY asked supporters to call Sen. Atkins and ask her to “do everything in her power” to bring the bill back. “She has the ability to go to the Rules Committee, pull the bill out of Appropriations and send it to the floor,” said Lewis. “It’s her Senate.”

Wiener also tried to hold out hope.

“There are potential opportunities if there are dynamic shifts for the bill to move this year,” he said.

But in a statement released the day after the bill was put on pause, Atkins threw cold water on hope for a hail-mary revival.

“I will not circumvent the decision  made by the Appropriations Committee Chair on SB 50,” Atkins said in the statement.

“Short of significantly amending the bill and limiting its applications in large swaths of the state, there was no path to move forward this year.”

Whenever it resurfaces, opponents of the idea say they are ready for that battle.

“I give credit to Senator Wiener for venturing into this very thorny area,” said Michael Weinsten, the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation who earlier this year funded an ad campaign comparing the bill to “Negro removal.”

But, he added: “I don’t think the third time will be the charm.”

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May 16, 2019 3:01 pm

Asbestos in your makeup? Legislature rejects proposal to ban toxics from cosmetics

Web Producer/General Assignment Reporter
A bill to ban toxic chemicals in cosmetics stalled in its first committee. Photo illustration by DGLimages.
A bill to ban toxic chemicals in cosmetics stalled in its first committee. Photo illustration by DGLimages.

Vivian Song of Sacramento tries to keep up with the latest makeup trends. While she pays attention to the ingredients in her beauty routine, she says others are clueless.

“Not a lot of girls know what they’re putting on their face,” she said. “Whatever’s trending, they’re going to put it on.”

Vivian Song, 19, says she wears organic makeup to alleviate breakouts. Photo by Elizabeth Castillo for CALmatters

Vivian Song, 19, says she wears organic makeup to alleviate breakouts. Photo by Elizabeth Castillo for CALmatters

California’s Legislature considered banning the sale of of cosmetics containing any of at least 15 toxic chemicals and minerals—including formaldehyde, asbestos and mercury. But after major pushback from powerful players such as the California Chamber of Commerce, which put the bill on its annual list of “job killers,” Assembly Bill 495 failed to survive its first committee hearing.

“The goal of this bill is to bring California up to par with the majority of European and other nations that have already banned these cosmetics with highly toxic chemicals,” said Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi of Torrance, the bill’s author. “We certainly don’t want to kill jobs,  but we want to make sure that these products are not being sold when there’s strong scientific evidence indicating there are harmful impacts on women, men and children.”

But the Chamber said it would have imposed “onerous and unnecessary economic burdens on California manufacturers and retailers by immediately banning thousands of personal care products from being sold in California….The mere presence of a chemical in a product cannot be a proxy for ‘exposure.’ Actual exposure at a level sufficient to cause harm, as determined via rigorous analysis, should be the standard for more regulation.”

Advocates said the bill would allow California to step in where the federal government had failed to protect consumers. In March, the federal Food and Drug Administration identified asbestos in makeup sold at Claire’s, a retailer located in malls nationwide. The agency asked Claire’s to recall the makeup, but it did not. Only after the FDA released a public statement did the retailer pull the product from its shelves.

Even so, the FDA noted: “To be clear, there are currently no legal requirements for any cosmetic manufacturer marketing products to American consumers to test their products for safety.”

“It’s ultimately still the honor system,” said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, a sponsor of the Muratsuchi’s bill in California.

There is no amount of contact with asbestos—a combination of six naturally occuring minerals— that is considered safe, according to multiple government agencies, including the federal  Centers for Disease Control. Asbestos also appears on California’s Proposition 65 list and is known to cause cancer.

Asbestos can sometimes be found in talc, a mineral frequently used in certain personal care products like baby powder and eye shadow. A Reuters report concluded that Johnson and Johnson knew its baby powder was sometimes contaminated with asbestos and the company knowingly kept that information from the public and regulators. The company faced thousands of lawsuits from those who claimed the asbestos-tainted products caused cancer.

Others argue that there is enough cosmetic regulation and the bill would make it difficult for manufacturers and retailers.

“This bill proposes an outright ban on many ingredients extensively reviewed by independent experts worldwide and found safe for use in cosmetics,” said Jay Ansell of the Personal Care Products Council at the bill’s committee hearing. (The Council also opposes a bill that plans to ban tiny hotel toiletries.) “The ban would adversely affect tens of thousands of products and potentially compromise the ability to provide consumers with the safe high-quality products they expect.”

More than a decade ago, the state launched the California Safe Cosmetics Program, which features an updated, searchable database of products containing potentially harmful chemicals and minerals. Last year then-Gov. Jerry Brown line-item vetoed money to update the program and boost staff.

It currently features more than two dozen common cosmetics containing lead, for instance, and nearly a dozen containing arsenic.

While companies are required to report harmful chemicals, there is no enforcement of company disclosure.

Lead, another element the bill sought to ban, is more difficult to navigate. The substance is commonly found in small amounts in water and soil, according to the federal  Environmental Protection Agency. Opponents argued that companies wouldn’t intentionally add lead to products, but since it’s so commonplace, trace amount of the element can still be found in makeup.

So where do Californians go from here? Muratsuchi said he plans to try again next year.

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May 9, 2019 6:23 pm

5 takeaways from Newsom’s revised budget plan

Economy Reporter
Gov. Gavin Newsom released his revised budget proposal, May 9, 2019, with a focus on education, health care and fighting homelessness. Photo for CALmatters by Judy Lin

Buoyed by California’s strong economy, Gov. Gavin Newsom sent state lawmakers a revised budget on Thursday that boosts his already-hefty January proposal to $213.6 billion. Ka-ching!

Public schools will reap most of the gains if the Democratic-controlled Legislature rolls with him. Newsom also upped his ante on the housing crisis with a proposed $1 billion more to combat homelessness.

Still, Californians can expect some fiscal debate: Some Democrats want to go further on Medi-Cal spending, and others are leery of Newsom’s tax ideas, such as the sales tax break he wants to give on tampons.

And Newsom acknowledged the lessons of past budget exuberance, sounding for all the world like a certain frugal predecessor. Here are five key takeaways:

Public schools will be #winning

Talk about an apple for the teacher: Under Newsom’s revised plan, California will send $81.1 billion to K-12 schools and community colleges for the new fiscal year that starts in July.

Although some Democrats and education advocates continue to complain about lackluster per-pupil spending, that investment would be the biggest ever, up nearly $400 million from Newsom’s January budget. The governor noted that school funding will account for 45% of the state’s general fund, much higher than the 40% minimum guaranteed under Proposition 98, the state’s education funding formula. Lawmakers may also question whether any money needs to be set aside in a special public school rainy day fund.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announces a $213.6 billion spending plan that calls for record public school spending. Photo by Judy Lin for CALmatters.

One notable change is a scale-down of an earlier $750 million proposal to expand access to full-day kindergarten by building more facilities. Instead, about $150 million would go toward teacher recruitment and training while the other $600 million will be prioritized for districts with high concentrations of poor students.

The tweak was influenced by a new UC Berkeley study that found wealthier communities were more likely to benefit under the governor’s full-day kindergarten proposal because that’s where most part-day kindergarten programs are located.

School districts would also get additional aid to pay for teachers’ pensions. In January, Newsom proposed to contribute $3 billion extra to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, a move that lowers districts’ contribution rates from 18.13% down to 17.1%, freeing up local money, the better to address threatened teacher strikes. The May budget revision adds $150 million to bring the contribution rate down to 16.7% for one year in 2019-20.

And Newsom’s not done weighing in on the state’s polarizing charter school debate, another labor flashpoint. After signing a fast-tracked charter school transparency law, the governor is proposing regulations to prohibit charter schools from turning down students based on their grades or special education status. The governor wants to prevent charter schools from asking for students’ transcripts or records before enrolling them and to create a new state system for charter families to report complaints.

Fewer excuses to dodge homelessness

NIMBYs beware: Expanding on his push to aid Californians in need and address the state’s mounting housing crisis, Newsom announced a $1 billion investment to combat homelessness.

His plan calls for $650 million to local governments for emergency aid, $120 million for counties to pilot assistance programs for people at risk for homelessness, $150 million to train mental health professionals, $40 million for colleges to assist students going hungry, $25 million for Supplemental Security Income advocacy and $20 million to assist people from getting evicted.

One step or two on universal health coverage?

Newsom is sticking to his guns on expanding Medi-Cal coverage to only young adults up to age 26 regardless of immigration status. That could set up some haggling with legislative Democrats who may push to expand coverage to all low-income residents regardless of their immigration status.

He says he’s open to ideas but wants to make sure the state moves toward universal health coverage in a financially responsible way. “My goal is universal health care for everyone,” he said. “That is the goal ultimately.”

The administration also affirmed its commitment to restore eyeglasses benefits for Medi-Cal patients, although health advocates say Newsom remains silent on other benefits that were cut during the last recession.

Although he tweaked subsidy eligibility and amounts, the governor is also sticking to an idea for a state individual mandate. The idea is to use penalties to help expand subsidies for middle-income earners to purchase health insurance through Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange.

He’s serious about working parents

Newsom’s options may be limited and he may be burnishing his ‘Governor Dad’ brand, but his agenda clearly is that of a guy who knows the price of Pampers. Earlier this week, he announced expanding the state’s paid family leave program by 2 weeks, threw support behind legislative proposals to eliminate sales tax on diapers and feminine products (even if there isn’t agreement yet for how long) and wants to boost the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for families with children under 6 from $500 to $1,000.

For working mothers, the administration had already proposed in January increasing CalWORKS grants. For a family of three, the highest grant will go from $785 to $888 per month. While that’s an increase of $103, it still remains 50% of federal poverty level.

Channeling Jerry Brown

Rarely have two governors differed more in style than Newsom and his predecessor. Still, at times during his 90-minute budget update, Newsom sounded for all the world like Jerry Brown.

The new governor repeatedly cited the old one’s warnings about the need for healthy state reserves and fiscal prudence. Newsom’s budget staff projects the state could lose $70 billion over three years in a moderate recession.

“We have a record amount of rainy day reserves and a record amount of resiliency. We have well over $30 billion-plus to weather a major storm and I would argue we have much more than that,” Newsom said. “We are preparing for a very different climate and we’ve never been more prepared as a state.”

CALmatters reporter Ricardo Cano contributed to this report.

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May 7, 2019 1:32 pm

‘Governor Dad’ Newsom budgets tax breaks for diapers, focuses on families

Political Reporter
Family policy priorities in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budge include tax breaks for diapers and tampons and expanded family leave. Photo for CALmatters by Judy Lin

California’s generational changing of the guard showed in the governor’s office on Tuesday as Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled out proposals to lift taxes on diapers and menstrual products—ideas his predecessor vetoed—and reiterated his desire to spend billions of dollars from the state budget to expand services for kids.

Joined by his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, and several female legislators, Newsom cast the proposals as actions to help California families while making good on a major theme of his gubernatorial campaign. Doing more for the youngest Californians is not only a policy agenda for the new governor, but also an opportunity for him to build a political image that highlights his own status as a parent of four children.

Fatherhood—and an interest in the public policies that impact parenting—have emerged as a stark contrast between Newsom, who is 51, and former Gov. Jerry Brown, 81, both Democrats. Brown, who once studied for the Roman Catholic priesthood, is childless.

“There is nothing more important we can do than support parents,” Newsom said. “It’s part of a larger agenda you’re going to hear a lot more from us about.”

Newsom’s new proposals include doubling the tax credit for families with children under age 6, expanding the number of low-income Californians who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and spending $80.5 million of the taxes reaped from legal marijuana sales on childcare.

He’s also calling for giving parents a longer paid leave to care for a new baby—though the proposal is more modest than he envisioned in January when he said he wants all babies in California to be cared for by a parent or other family member for the first 6 months of life.

The new proposal calls for giving California workers 8 weeks of paid family leave, up from the current six weeks, starting in July of next year. He did not announce the cost of the 2-week expansion, but said it’s being paid for by reducing the amount of required reserve funds in the account that pays for the program.

Newsom said he’s still exploring ways California can eventually get to the 6-month plan (or 3 months of leave for each parent in a two-parent family).

“These are all stretch goals,” he said. “We can’t do everything overnight.”

Newsom is sticking with proposals from his January budget to expand public preschools, lengthen the school day for kindergartners and give grants to college students who are raising children.

The announcements came as Newsom prepares to unveil the annual May revision of his state budget proposal, one step in the tango between the governor and the Legislature that will result in a final budget in June. The state budget is flush, with analysts predicting a surplus that could reach $21 billion. That means a lot of money for Democrats to fight over.

Brown frequently used his budget announcements to tamp down the ambitions of legislative Democrats who wanted to spend more. Newsom, less than five months into the job, is still finding his way in relation to the Legislature in which Democrats hold a historically large majority.

That super-big-tent majority reflects a wide range of political priorities that could pose challenges for Newsom. Some Democrats want to spend even more than he does—on health care for undocumented immigrants and public preschool. Other Democrats, many from swing districts, don’t want to support taxes Newsom has proposed to pay for cleaning up polluted drinking water.

Newsom is scheduled to release the rest of his May revision on Thursday.

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April 30, 2019 7:15 pm

How powerful lawmakers are killing California bills—without a peep

Political Reporter
Lawmakers of both parties complain that bills that are objectionable—or just inconvenient—for powerful Democratic lawmakers have been dying in the Assembly without even a hearing. Photo of the California Assembly via Creative Commons.
Bills that are objectionable—or just inconvenient—for powerful Democratic lawmakers have been dying in the Assembly without even a hearing. Photo of the California Assembly via Creative Commons.

Gun control, school spending, curbs on greenhouse gases: With Democrats holding more power at the Capitol than they’ve had since the 19th century, California’s legislative pipeline is full this year with big, blue-state ideas.

In theory, no Democrat’s bill should be left behind. But that’s not what’s happening, and the reason is roiling both sides of the aisle in Sacramento.

The complaint? Democrats who lead legislative committees are using a powerful tool to kill bills before they even get a vote.

The tool? Simply doing nothing.

Under a rule the California Assembly put in place at the start of the current session, committee chairs can decide whether to bring a bill assigned to their committee up for consideration. As key deadlines came and went this month for bills to move out of committee, chairs used the new power to quash bills by just not scheduling them for a public hearing.

No hearing, no debate, no vote.

Democrats—who hold all the chairmanships because of their party’s mega-majority in the Legislature—flexed their muscle not only to bury GOP legislation, but also to silently sideline bills by fellow Democrats that might be embarrassing to publicly vote down.

Among the victims: Democratic legislation to alter the formula for funding public schools to devote more money to low-achieving students (a complex plan that stresses racial inequities); a bill to develop a strategy to phase out sales of gas-powered cars in favor of cleaner vehicles (guaranteed to create conflicts for Democrats whose constituents work in the oil industry); and a potentially divisive proposal requiring that gun owners lock up their weapons when they leave home.

“I was very frustrated,” said Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Democrat from Glendale whose bill on gun storage was shelved without a hearing.

“The committee is there to discuss areas of policy. If the chair has concerns about the policy, it’s my opinion that having it discussed in committee is the right approach.”

It’s the latest sign that Democrats’ growing majority in Sacramento doesn’t necessarily mean more unity. Democrats now hold about three-quarters of the Legislature’s seats—a margin that gives the party the potential for great power, but also makes it vulnerable to fracture under the weight of its ideological, geographic and socio-economic diversity.

Refusing to set a hearing for a bill isn’t the only way Dems are quietly killing Democratic legislation. Several progressive bills stalled this month because their authors knew they would fail in committee and so opted not to bring them up for a vote. They included measures to expand rent control, broaden data privacy protections and ban super-sized servings of soda.

But lawmakers have long had the face-saving authority to pull their own bill if they could tell it wasn’t going to pass. The change this year is in the Assembly, where members are grappling with the committee chairs’ new authority to not hear a bill. (The state Senate did not enact a similar rule change this year. Its custom has been to let chairs decide whether to set hearings.)

The lower house adopted new rules when the legislative session began, explicitly giving committee chairs the power to choose whether to hear legislation. Previously, committees generally heard all bills if the author wanted them heard, and it was unusual for a chair not to extend that courtesy.

The Assembly’s move to clarify that chairs can decide whether to set a hearing is in keeping with Speaker Anthony Rendon’s long-stated philosophy that committee chairs should have more power.

Assembly Republicans quickly jumped on the change as something that could doom their bills, and voted against the rule.

“Chairmen under these new rules would have the power to essentially kill a bill by denying it a hearing,” GOP Assemblyman Jay Obernolte said in December as the Assembly voted on the new rules. “And they would be able to do this… without a vote of the members of that committee and without any testimony from the public. That is a violation not only of the longstanding practice of this chamber, but also of the principles of democracy itself.”

Democratic Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, who chairs the public safety committee that held Friedman’s gun storage bill, said that by not hearing it he’s giving supporters more time to resolve problems and bring it back next year. He wouldn’t say why he objected to the gun storage policy, though his committee’s analysis says it could conflict with local ordinances.

“I want to see if we can come together and make the bill much better so it’s not a contentious bill and we can get it through,” Jones-Sawyer said. “I’m trying to make sure the committee as a whole doesn’t kill the bill.”

Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said that in her more than six years in the Legislature—during which she’s carried plenty of controversial legislation—this month was the first time a committee chair has refused to hear one of her bills. Her legislation to change the formula for funding public schools so that more money would be devoted to student groups that post the lowest test scores was one of several measures related to the funding formula that were not heard in the education committee.

“Generally even if the chair opposes a bill they will set the bill for a hearing, and then people can vote it up or down,” Weber said.

The new way, she said, amounts to “a one-person decision.”

It’s striking a nerve across the political spectrum, from a Sierra Club lobbyist who’s angry that a clean-cars bill wasn’t heard, to a conservative Republican who’s fuming because her campus free-speech bill—making it harder for colleges to restrict who can speak at campus events—wasn’t brought up for a vote.

“When you don’t allow that bill to be heard then you don’t even have the discussion,” said GOP Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez. “The opportunity for a healthy debate is taken away.”

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A bill aimed at protecting California tenants from “egregious” rent hikes cleared a key hurdle in the state Legislature today, less than 24 hours after pro-tenant groups learned their latest try to expand tighter rent controls throughout California is flailing in the Capitol.

The anti-rent-gouging bill, modeled after a first-in-the-nation statewide law enacted earlier this year in Oregon, would cap the amount that landlords could raise the rent year-over-year at 5% plus inflation. Authored by Assemblyman David Chiu, Democrat from San Francisco, Assembly Bill 1482 passed its first committee vote today on a 6-1 margin, marking a rare early victory for tenant groups who have struggled to get state lawmaker support in recent years.

“This is a bill to provide certainty to 15 million California renters that they will not receive an exorbitant rent increase while allowing property owners to make a fair return on their investment,” said Chiu, in a Capitol hearing room overflowing with tenants and landlords.

After adjusting for inflation, statewide median rents have increased nearly 25 percent since 2000, according to data from the California Department of Housing and  Community Development. That number masks some of the soaring rent increases found in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, which consistently top the list of the most unaffordable rental markets in the country.

Many had traveled to the Capitol to voice their support or opposition to a more controversial piece of legislation yearned for by tenant advocates for decades. That bill  would have allowed cities to expand rent control to single family homes and properties built after 1995. Current law prohibits cities from doing so, effectively exempting thousands of units from rent control even in places with local rent control laws like San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Assembly Bill 36 was scheduled to be voted on today, as part of a renter protection package organized by a group of progressive lawmakers. But late last night the bill’s author, Assemblyman Richard Bloom, Democrat from Santa Monica, withdrew it before it could be voted on.

“Pulling” a bill before a vote usually indicates it would not have received enough lawmaker support to advance. Bloom could not be reached for comment.

The withdrawal represents yet another setback for rent control advocates. A similar bill last year failed to make it out of its first committee hearing, and a statewide rent control initiative failed by an overwhelming margin last November.

“The millions of dollars being spent every year by the corporate landlord lobby to influence the state Legislature is difficult to combat, and we see that over and over again,” said Amy Schur, campaign director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a leading tenants-rights organization.

The backers of the failed initiative are planning another rent control ballot measure in 2020. Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked lawmakers to send him a rent stabilization package he can sign, but his office would not comment on the fate of Bloom’s bill.

“I am grateful that members of the Assembly voted today to continue moving forward on one piece of the housing affordability solution—creating a renter protection package,” Newsom said in a statement after the rent-gouging bill passed. “I look forward to continuing this important conversation as proposals move through the legislative process.”

Tenant rights activists staged a sit-in at Newsom’s capitol office late last night demanding more state action. Newsom’s chief of staff pledged to the activists that the governor was doing all he could to move a renter protection package along in the Legislature.

While not rent control in the traditional sense, the anti-rent-gouging bill would limit the prices landlords can charge on wide swaths of California’s housing stock currently  exempted from rent control, such as single family homes.

Researchers at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation recently estimated how many California rentals not currently covered by rent control could be covered by a gouging cap if freed from the constraints of the current law, known as Costa Hawkins for the two lawmakers who successfully pushed it in 1995. The conclusion: an additional 4.9 million units—a huge chunk of the state’s rental stock. Nearly 40 percent would be single-family homes.

Opponents of the measure say capping how much landlords can increase rent will only deter new construction or pull rental units from  the market, exacerbating California’s housing shortage.

Debra Carlton,  spokeswoman for  the landlords’ lobby in Sacramento, said her organization’s objection to the bill was more about the precedent it would set for stricter rent control legislation than the anti-gouging cap itself.  “Our concern isn’t so much about this current bill, but the temptation to lower the standard in the future,” said Carlton.

Several Democratic lawmakers who voted for the rent-gouging measure stressed they’d like to see the legislation changed to be more flexible for landlords, and possibly exempt newer construction from rent caps.

The bill will face several other votes before it becomes law, and could be incorporated in a broader suite of housing legislation that also tries to spur supply.

“This should never be about stifling production,” said Todd Gloria, Democrat from San Diego, who voted for the rent-gouging cap and is the only legislator CALmatters could identify who is not a homeowner.  But he added that lawmakers can’t wait for new housing supply to translate to cheaper rents.

“There is short-term pain that so many of us feel that the Legislature needs to take action on,” he said.

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April 24, 2019 10:24 pm

Universal preschool bills advance, and it’s more than just baby steps

K-12 Education Reporter
A package of bills aimed at helping expand early childhood education in California cleared their first committee, laying a foundation for more subsidized preschool.

Legislation that would significantly expand California’s subsidized preschool program cleared its first committee hearing Wednesday, leaving early childhood education advocates increasingly optimistic that at least the first phase of their long-sought effort will cross the finish line this year.

For years, pressure has mounted at the Capitol to increase access to preschool for the state’s youngest pupils. Advocates say expanding early childhood services would have a powerful ripple effect in addressing the state’s educational and income disparities.

Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento says he views the package of legislation he’s introduced—Assembly Bills 123, 124 and 125—as the first step in a long-term plan to implement free, universal preschool in California.

Currently, the state’s program funds about 175,000 preschool slots for students who come from low-income families at a cost of about $1.2 billion, but there aren’t enough slots to cover all eligible students. McCarty said Wednesday that his bill would expand eligibility to nearly 70,000 children aged 3 and 4. The exact cost of that expansion isn’t clear but, for comparison, expanding the program by 100,000 slots had an estimated price tag of $1.5 billion.

“When addressing issues like childhood poverty, (preschool) matters,” McCarty said at a press conference prior to Wednesday’s hearing. “We owe it to our kids, our economy and our future to do better. Unfortunately thousands of California kids enter kindergarten without pre-K and they start behind and they never catch up.”

McCarty has said he envisions the rollout of such an expansion first targeting the state’s neediest students while also increasing access to free preschool to families who are considered to be in the middle class, but aren’t able to afford tuition costs, which range in the thousands.

“We’d like to have universal preschool for everybody, but frankly we can’t afford it,” McCarty said. “So we should start with the kids who need it the most.”

McCarty’s package of bills would also overhaul and increase the state’s reimbursement rates for childcare and preschool providers in an effort to increase quality and “pay them [providers] wages that aren’t, frankly, fast food wages,” McCarty said. The median hourly pay for preschool teachers in California—$16 in 2017—is significantly lower than that of a kindergarten ($38 per hour) or elementary school teacher ($45 per hour), according to a recent collection of Stanford studies.

There appears to be no shortage of support in the Legislature for expanding preschool.  Leaders in the Assembly and Senate, including Speaker Anthony Rendon, have supported previous attempts to expand preschool access.

Gov. Jerry Brown was resistant to previous efforts and generally wary of tacking on costly programs to the state’s budget as California recovered from a crippling recession.

Since then, the state’s finances have trended upward—to the tune of an estimated $21 billion surplus in January—and there’s a new governor in the Capitol’s executive office.

McCarty and supporters have pointed to Newsom, a father of four young kids who earmarked $1.8 billion for early childhood programs in his first budget proposal, as a core reason why they believe 2019 is the “time that California steps up and fulfills the promise of pre-K for all.”

“It’s undeniable. Kids who have access to pre-K are better prepared for kindergarten and beyond,” said Republican Sen. Ling Ling Chang of Diamond Bar. “If we want to close the achievement gap and make California a public education leader, [preschool] has to be a part of the equation.”

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