Yet another attempt to curb soda falls flat
A lobbying blitz by the soda industry helped kill four out of five bills Democrats proposed this year to limit Californians’ consumption of sugary drinks, which health advocates blame for a rise in diabetes and obesity.
The latest casualty was AB 764, which would have prohibited discount pricing on soda, the same way manufacturers are prohibited from offering coupons on cigarettes. Supporters of the measure—including doctors, dentists and public health advocates—argued that Californians would make healthier choices and drink less soda if they had to pay full price on every purchase. Opponents from the beverage industry said the proposal could violate their commercial free speech rights to determine pricing on a legal product.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta, an Alameda Democrat, did not take his bill up for a floor vote by the deadline—an indication that it probably didn’t have enough votes to pass. There’s always next year.
Crackdown won't include a moratorium on charter schools
Charter school backers have expected a push for more regulation since the November elections, when statewide candidates backed by California’s teachers unions generally drubbed those favoring the growth of the mostly nonunion, privately-run public schools.
Four bills this session would inhibit charter growth; of those, two have passed their house of origin. AB 1507 would prohibit school districts from authorizing charter schools outside of their geographic boundaries, and AB 1505 would make local school districts the sole authorizers of charters.
But more sweeping restrictions lost steam as the May 31 deadline approached for floor votes. AB 1506, to cap the number of charter schools statewide, was quietly sidelined May 30 when the Assembly adjourned without considering it. And a two-year moratorium on new California charters stalled May 29 in the state Senate when it was put into the inactive file.
Senate Bill 756 by Democratic Sen. Maria Elena Durazo of Los Angeles had originally called for a five-year charter moratorium if the Legislature didn’t pass regulations outlined in three other bills by 2020.
The proposed new rules are being lobbied intensely. Meanwhile, a forthcoming report by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond is expected to recommend its own charter regulations.
No cap: Second big charter school bill stalls
In yet another sign that the union-charter school debate ain’t over til it’s over, Assembly Bill 1506, which called for a statewide cap on charters, quietly stalled May 30 as the chamber failed to take it up before Friday’s house-of-origin deadline. It’s the second of four big charter school bills to get into trouble this year.
Though AB 1506 was technically left on file, and not deemed “inactive,” it would require a rule waiver to be reconsidered. Authored by Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, it would have capped the number of charters in localities across the state, limiting charters to less than 10 percent of a local school system’s average daily attendance starting in 2020.
Statewide, nearly 11 percent of students attend public charter schools, though that concentration is considerably higher in Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area, where the number of charters has grown exponentially.
The other two bills still active—AB 1505 and AB 1507—aim to overhaul the state’s charter authorization law and prohibit school districts from authorizing charters outside of their geographic boundaries. Also pending: A summer report from the Superintendent of Public Instruction that is expected to influence the debate on charter schools.
Tobacco industry breathes easy—No ban on flavored products
Never doubt the power of the tobacco lobby in California. A bill to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products statewide was pulled May 23 by its author, Sen Jerry Hill.
Flavored tobacco products, especially those used in electronic cigarettes, are responsible for an increase in tobacco use by middle and high schoolers. Health advocates say they can lead to the use of traditional cigarettes, and nicotine addiction.
Hill, a Democrat from San Mateo, said he withdrew his SB 38 because of amendments that exempted hookah products and also any product patented before 2000, except menthol cigarettes. Those amendments led the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Lung Association in California and the American Heart Association to withdraw their support.
“Exempting hookah products set a terrible precedent and undermine the foundation of the original legislation to protect youth, low income and minority communities from flavored tobacco,” the organizations wrote.
The tobacco industry—and particularly Juul Labs of San Francisco, the largest maker of e-cigarettes—waged a high-powered Capitol lobby effort and donated significantly to state lawmakers. The industry, which insists it does not target young people, already killed a similar idea in the Assembly. Negotiations may lead to a compromise, but presumably only if it’s something the industry prefers.
Just like that, "just cause" just dies
It’s really hard to pass pro-tenant bills in California.
Earlier this year, a group of progressive lawmakers mostly from the Bay Area proposed four bills aimed at protecting California’s 17 million renters: a bill that would have allowed cities to expand rent control to more properties, a proposal to create a statewide eviction database, a rent-gouging cap that would limit big rent hikes, and a bill to force landlords to evict tenants only for “just cause”—such as breaking the terms of a lease or criminal activity on the premises.
After “just cause” failed to receive a vote on the Assembly floor today, only the rent-gouging bill remains alive.
Authored by Assemblymen Rob Bonta and Timothy Grayson, both Democrats from the East Bay, AB 1481 would have required landlords to disclose a specific reason for removing tenants after their lease had expired, and would have forced them to provide some relocation assistance in certain circumstances. Tenants would also have the opportunity to “cure” behaviors that could result in eviction.
“Just cause” is loathed by the landlord lobby and its allies—they say it would become a major obstacle to removing problematic tenants who are a nuisance not only to owners but to renter neighbors. The bill was considered a “twin” measure to AB 1482, the rent-gouging cap, and without just cause protections, tenant groups fear landlords would simply remove tenants in order to raise rents beyond the cap. It is unclear whether the rent-gouging cap might be amended to include stronger eviction protections.
Renters won’t find it easier to organize tenant unions
A bill that would have prevented landlords from evicting tenants who organized a renters union within their building failed to make it out of the state Senate by one vote.
Pushed by a growing tenants rights movement that has struggled to advance legislation in the Capitol, SB 529 in its original form would have allowed renters to “strike” by collectively withholding rent. That provision was stripped before the bill’s failure on the Senate floor.
Landlords, realtors and the California Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, arguing it was a de facto form of “just cause eviction” and would limit landlords’ ability to remove problematic tenants. Opposing interest groups also argued state laws already protects tenants from landlord retaliation.
It was no coincidence that Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, Democrat from Los Angeles and a veteran of California labor unions, authored the bill. Tenant groups have been trying to strengthen their relationship with powerful labor unions to help their odds of getting bills through Sacramento, and tenants unions often model their organizing tactics after those deployed by organized labor.
Business lobby stifles move to expand unpaid family leave
An effort to allow more Californians to take time off work to care for a new baby or sick relative stalled—a win for the large employers and small business owners who opposed the idea.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat, pulled SB 135 for 2019, but could take it up again next year. The bill would have given workers at companies that employ at least five people the right to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave—a benefit currently available only to workers at businesses with 50 or more employees. It also would have expanded the definition of family to allow workers time off to care for a grandchild, child-in-law, or the child of a domestic partner. And it would have guaranteed that workers who take paid family leave can’t lose their jobs for doing so.
The California Chamber of Commerce argued that it would burden small businesses and created the possibility of more lawsuits. It labeled the bill a “job killer,” a designation the employer group has used effectively to kill many bills over the years.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed expanding paid family leave from six to eight weeks by making a change in the state budget—a step toward his grander proposal that every baby born in California be cared for by a family member for the first 6 months of life. Newsom wants to pay for the cost of that expansion by reducing the program’s reserve fund. By November his task force is expected to recommend broader changes to family leave in California.
Labor-backed effort to oust Teach For America fizzles again
Teach For America is staying in California, for the time being. Legislation that would have prohibited low-income schools from hiring teachers through that third-party program and others was shelved May 30, though its author plans to revive it next year.
Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens, who taught in low-income schools for 13 years, had said such programs do more harm than good to disadvantaged students because they enlist inexperienced teachers who are not required to make a long-term commitment to the profession. Supporters of Teach For America say such programs draw ambitious educators to schools that are chronically difficult to staff.
“The truth is that the opposition is funded by billionaires and these students don’t have paid lobbyists or organizations walking the halls,” Garcia said in a statement. “It’s politically easier for some of my colleagues to maintain the status quo at the continued expense of poor students.”
If AB 221 does return, it will mark the proposal’s third consecutive try. The bill was initially introduced in 2018, though got no hearing.
Feeling sick? Three-day paid leave remains the status quo
A proposal that would have extended an employee’s paid sick leave from three days to five has been quarantined.
AB 555, by Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, would have built upon a 2014 law she authored guaranteeing at least three days. “We knew when we passed the paid sick leave law that three days wouldn’t be enough but was a great start,” she said in a statement this year.
Los Angeles and several Bay Area cities—and seven other states—are among those who now require employers to provide more paid sick leave.
Supporters, including labor unions, said expanding paid sick leave would allow employees to fully recover from an illness and decrease the likelihood of making a coworker sick. The home care workers union argued that it would help keep their clients, many of whom are more susceptible to illness, from getting sick by an employee.
But opponents, including the California Chamber of Commerce, argued that businesses already give employees plenty of paid leave. They pointed to the Paid Family Leave Program, which allows employees to receive up to 6 weeks of partially-paid family leave. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also proposed an expansion.
Weed killer: Reluctant cities won't be forced to open thousands of pot shops
A bid to open as many as 4,000 new marijuana dispensaries in California was shelved amid opposition from cities arguing it would override local control.
AB 1356 would have required local governments to approve permits for cannabis dispensaries if a majority of voters in their area in 2016 supported Proposition 64, the initiative that legalized marijuana for adults in California. The exact number of cannabis permits required would have been based on the number of liquor licenses in each city.
Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, said he hoped the proposal would lead to an additional 3,500 to 4,000 dispensaries opening up in the state—a massive increase from the 620 legal pot shops now operating. Cannabis businesses that support the bill argued that the legal marijuana marketplace created by Prop. 64 is suffering because too many cities have banned dispensaries—leading consumers to buy on the black market.
The bill faced a steep hurdle to pass, requiring support from two-thirds of the Assembly, and Ting opted not to try a floor vote.
Lawmakers dodge vote to impose tax penalty on those without health insurance
A bill to require Californians to enroll in health insurance or pay a penalty was pulled from the Senate floor May 29. But expect a resurrection of the plan as part of the budget process.
It’s a move that allows legislators to avoid a politically dicey vote on what is essentially a tax on those who don’t purchase healthcare, but get the mandate anyway. You might call this aversion to voting for any new taxes the Newman Syndrome, in honor of former Sen. Josh Newman, who lost his seat in a recall election after he voted to support an increase in the state gas tax.
But the author of the mandate penalty bill, Democratic Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento, also said the penalty is “a key part of the governor’s budget to fund subsidies” and would take effect sooner that way. The aim: replace a federal mandate that everyone to have health insurance or pay a federal tax penalty. Last year the requirement was canceled by the Trump administration as way to gut Obamacare.
Some states have already adopted their own replacement mandate, but California has been slow to do so. Concerns about imposing a fee on those who can’t afford insurance were eased by another bill by Pan, which would provide state-funded subsidies to middle-income families who haven’t been able to afford care. That bill did move out of the Senate this week, but its funding is contingent on the state adopting—and collected— a state mandate penalty.
If California does not adopt a mandate, experts say the state could see a significant rise in the number of uninsured people. Since 2013 the state’s uninsured rate has decreased from 20 percent to 7 percent. That means about 3.4 million people are uninsured, the majority of them are undocumented immigrants.
No time off for harassment victims to seek counsel
For the second year in a row, lawmakers have rejected a bill meant to help victims of sexual harassment by allowing them time off from work to seek legal services and counseling.
Assembly Bill 628 would have given workers dealing with sexual harassment the same protections that the law already gives victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. It also would have applied the provision to public employers including the Legislature, which was rocked by a series of sexual harassment scandals in 2017-2018. Lawmakers introduced dozens of bills inspired by the #MeToo movement last year, including one very similar to the latest legislative casualty.
This year’s version, by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, failed on the Assembly floor Wednesday when 44 legislators—including more than 20 Democrats—voted against it or withheld their votes. The California Chamber of Commerce lobbied against the bill, arguing it would have expanded the definition of sexual harassment, potentially complicating other anti-harassment policies, and required employers to give workers an unlimited amount of time off. The Chamber deemed it a “job killer,” a label the employer group slaps on bills it most wants to kill.
Dams still can't count toward the state's clean-energy quotas
A proposal that environmentalists warned would inadvertently undercut solar and wind energy development was shelved by its author.
The bill would have created a small exception to rules that, for now, prevent hydropower from counting toward an ambitious state target: deriving 60% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Under SB 386, by Salinas Democratic Sen. Anna Caballero, two Central Valley irrigation districts could have saved money by applying electricity produced by the Don Pedro Dam towards their clean energy quotas.
Opponents complained that the tiny exemption would prompt similar pushes to count hydropower produced by dams across the state—ultimately encouraging dependence on an energy source that’s less reliable during droughts, while reducing incentives to invest in new solar and wind outfits.
“It’s kind of a get-out-of jail free card for them from having to procure more renewable technology,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment.
Caballero could resurrect the bill next year. “California’s renewable energy goals are laudable,” she said in a statement, “but they should take into account the different ways in which our most disadvantaged communities are affected.”
Groundwater concerns help pull plug on energy storage idea
A proposal to “bank energy” for seasons at a time—by requiring California’s independent grid operator to buy large-scale storage, and pass the cost to ratepayers—flickered out in the Senate.
Supporters had argued that more storage could help propel the state toward its renewable energy goals by balancing the ebb and flow of solar and wind power when the sun sets or the wind stills.
Now, the main grid-scale option in California is pumped hydroelectric energy storage. That’s a two-reservoir system where water is pumped from a lower-elevation reservoir to a higher one when electricity is cheap. Then, when demand climbs or supply dwindles, the higher-elevation reservoir releases water to turn a turbine and produce electricity.
But environmental groups argued that the bill, SB 772, favored one particular pumped hydro project at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park—a project that could endanger the park’s precious groundwater supply.
Opponents prevailed: When the bill didn’t have enough votes, its author, Democratic Sen. Steven Bradford of Gardena, shelved it.
Contractors can’t sidestep a conflict-of-interest law
An attempt to exempt certain government contractors from conflict-of-interest laws failed to get off-the-ground.
AB 626, authored by Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, an Orange County Democrat, tried to exempt contractors including architects, engineers and geologists from being deemed financially interested in a project.
Supporters of the bill said current law prevents capable contractors from working on several phases of a project: If they were involved early on, they can’t bid on work down the road. Opponents argued that if one contractor could be involved in multiple parts of a project, that could create a conflict of interest.
The bill was sponsored by engineers and architects, and opposed by general contractors.