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Drumroll, please…The Obamacare Replacement Plan has arrived

We all knew this was coming.

House Republicans finally pulled back the curtain on their legislative effort to replace the Affordable Care Act. It’s a moment seven years in the making. Putting the kibosh on Obamacare was not only a central promise of both President Trump and the GOP’s 2016 campaign, it’s been a singular rallying point for the party since 2009. Now, at long last, the repeal and replace plan is ready for its close-up.

Or, as the President put it this morning:

“The American Health Care Act is a plan to drive down costs, encourage competition, and give every American access to quality, affordable health insurance,” House Speaker, Paul Ryan said in a statement.

Just how do House Republicans plan to do all of that? The incorrigibly wonkish can have a look at the full text of the legislation that emerged from two committees here and here, but these are the highlights:

  • Remove the ACA’s unpopular financial penalties on individuals and businesses who do not purchase health insurance—but replace them with a 30 percent premium surcharge applied to those who go without coverage for longer than two months
  • Phase out the Medicaid expansion (which currently covers over 3.5 million Californians) within three years
  • Replace the ACA’s insurance subsidies (which are higher for those who earn less) with individual tax credits (that rise with a person’s age)
  • Eliminate the ACA’s taxes on high-earners and costly medical devices
  • Prevents any health care service provider, including Planned Parenthood, from receiving federal funds through Medicaid if they perform abortions (a limit that would have particularly strong repercussions in California)

Though the House Republican bill takes a wrecking ball to the former President’s signature healthcare law, it does keep some of Obamacare’s most beloved goodies. It allows health insurance companies will still be barred from charging people more based on their pre-existing health conditions. Likewise, young Americans will still be able to stay on their parents’ healthcare plans until they turn 26.

How much all of this is going to cost (or save) the American taxpayer remains to be seen. According to the Washington Post, the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan budgetary scorekeeper for all federal legislation, has not yet had time to estimate the bill’s price tag.

But the bill faces tough sledding ahead. In the House, a conservative uprising already is mounting against it, targeting among other features its use of tax credits—a.k.a. interference in the free market. One member of the Freedom Caucus dismissed it with a two-word tweet.

Earlier, four Republican senators—Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowing to vote against any bill “that does not include stability for Medicaid expansion populations or flexibility for states.”  Whether McConnell can win the confidence of those four lawmakers, while also attracting the necessary eight votes from the Democratic caucus to break a near-certain filibuster and keep conservative firebrands in line, will require a formidable act of political tightrope walking.

No matter the ideological and tactical divisions that run through the GOP, Republicans have always been able to agree on one thing: Obamacare has to go. Whether they can agree on anything else will determine if and how millions of Californians get their health insurance in the years to come.

Drumroll, please…The Obamacare Replacement Plan has arrived

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In this corner: Health

We all knew this was coming.

House Republicans finally pulled back the curtain on their legislative effort to replace the Affordable Care Act. It’s a moment seven years in the making. Putting the kibosh on Obamacare was not only a central promise of both President Trump and the GOP’s 2016 campaign, it’s been a singular rallying point for the party since 2009. Now, at long last, the repeal and replace plan is ready for its close-up.

Or, as the President put it this morning:

“The American Health Care Act is a plan to drive down costs, encourage competition, and give every American access to quality, affordable health insurance,” House Speaker, Paul Ryan said in a statement.

Just how do House Republicans plan to do all of that? The incorrigibly wonkish can have a look at the full text of the legislation that emerged from two committees here and here, but these are the highlights:

  • Remove the ACA’s unpopular financial penalties on individuals and businesses who do not purchase health insurance—but replace them with a 30 percent premium surcharge applied to those who go without coverage for longer than two months
  • Phase out the Medicaid expansion (which currently covers over 3.5 million Californians) within three years
  • Replace the ACA’s insurance subsidies (which are higher for those who earn less) with individual tax credits (that rise with a person’s age)
  • Eliminate the ACA’s taxes on high-earners and costly medical devices
  • Prevents any health care service provider, including Planned Parenthood, from receiving federal funds through Medicaid if they perform abortions (a limit that would have particularly strong repercussions in California)

Though the House Republican bill takes a wrecking ball to the former President’s signature healthcare law, it does keep some of Obamacare’s most beloved goodies. It allows health insurance companies will still be barred from charging people more based on their pre-existing health conditions. Likewise, young Americans will still be able to stay on their parents’ healthcare plans until they turn 26.

How much all of this is going to cost (or save) the American taxpayer remains to be seen. According to the Washington Post, the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan budgetary scorekeeper for all federal legislation, has not yet had time to estimate the bill’s price tag.

But the bill faces tough sledding ahead. In the House, a conservative uprising already is mounting against it, targeting among other features its use of tax credits—a.k.a. interference in the free market. One member of the Freedom Caucus dismissed it with a two-word tweet.

Earlier, four Republican senators—Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowing to vote against any bill “that does not include stability for Medicaid expansion populations or flexibility for states.”  Whether McConnell can win the confidence of those four lawmakers, while also attracting the necessary eight votes from the Democratic caucus to break a near-certain filibuster and keep conservative firebrands in line, will require a formidable act of political tightrope walking.

No matter the ideological and tactical divisions that run through the GOP, Republicans have always been able to agree on one thing: Obamacare has to go. Whether they can agree on anything else will determine if and how millions of Californians get their health insurance in the years to come.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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June 5, 2019 9:00 pm

Poll: To tackle housing crisis, most Californians would limit local control

Political Reporter
Oakland Council member At-Large, Rebecca Kaplan energizes the crowd by sounding the shofar during a pro-rent control rally on Monday, April 23, 2018. That November, a majority of California voters rejected Proposition 10, which would have reduced restrictions on rent control.
Oakland Council member At-Large, Rebecca Kaplan energizes the crowd by sounding the shofar during a pro-rent control rally on Monday, April 23, 2018. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

A majority of California voters want state lawmakers to aggressively address an ever-worsening housing crisis, even if that means strong-arming uncooperative local governments, according to a new poll.

But given the Legislature’s recent track record, they’re probably in for a disappointment.

A new survey from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 57% of likely voters (and 62% of all adults) favor a policy that would force local governments to allow denser development “near mass transit and job centers.” That includes half of all the homeowners surveyed, a powerful constituency in the Capitol who are often presumed to oppose zoning reform.

But the odds of the Legislature meeting that demand this year are virtually non-existent. A bill by to do so by San Francisco’s Sen. Scott Weiner was quietly shelved in the Assembly appropriations committee last month.

The poll found similar-sized majorities of Californians want the state to get even tougher: They favor withholding from cities and counties new state transportation dollars raised from a gas tax increase, unless those local governments approve a certain amount of new housing.

Gov. Gavin Newsom included that idea in his budget proposal, but so far it’s received a chilly reception from other state lawmakers as well as local governments.

“Housing is viewed as a crisis by the public, and they’re looking for bold action,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the institute. “And from the Legislature, so far, they’re getting inaction more than action.”

He added that he didn’t “think it’s necessarily a coincidence” that disapproval of the Legislature among likely voters came in at 53% among likely voters, up 10 percentage points from the institute’s January poll.

Decisions about how many homes are built, where and under what conditions have traditionally been made by local governments in California. But for decades, the state has failed to produce enough housing to meet demand, which many blame on local obstructionism. As housing costs reach crisis levels, that guiding principle of “local control” seems to be falling out of favor.

The League of California Cities, which argues that locally elected officials are still best positioned to make land use decisions for their communities, doesn’t seem worried about the poll result.

“Voters overwhelmingly trust and want local elected officials making important decisions about the type and location of housing in their communities,” said Carolyn Coleman, the League’s executive director, in a statement. “Furthermore, voters have told us they want transportation funds dedicated to cities to fixing local roads.”

Groups that want the state to take a stronger hand to boost building saw today’s poll as proof that voters are on their side.

Californians “understand that there is a housing shortage, and they understand that the solution to a housing shortage is to build more homes,” said Matthew Lewis, a spokesperson for California YIMBY (the pro-development “Yes In My Backyard” group). “At some point, someone is going to have to (ask) the question: Is it our political leaders who are wrong about the housing crisis or is it the majority of Californians?”

One telling data point in the poll may help explain the disconnect. Asked the question “Does the cost of your housing place a financial strain on you and your family today,” 52% of adults said yes. But when the institute included only likely voters, that number dropped to 45%.

The poll found a lack of support for loosening the California Environmental Quality Act, the environmental law that applies to the construction of new buildings and infrastructure, as a way to address the housing shortage. Though every major candidate for governor in 2018 supported at least tinkering with the law, only 39% of likely voters and 47% of adults are on board.

In non-housing related news, the survey reported that two-thirds of Democrats in California believe Congress should begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. That’s on par with how Democrats across the country feel (60% told a Harvard CAPS / Harris poll that not only should proceedings begin, but that Trump should be removed from office). But it does put them at odds with other California voters. Impeachment proceedings have the backing of just 35% of voters without party affiliation, and a mere 9% of state Republicans.

That places Democratic candidates, hoping to appeal both to the party faithful in the newly relevant California primary and the broader electorate, in a tough position, said Baldassare.

“It speaks to the challenges of the candidates in this election in trying in some ways to both be Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the same time,” he said.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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June 2, 2019 8:10 pm

California Democrats loudly lean left—but quietly make a safe choice

Political Reporter
Delegates at the California Democratic Convention in San Francisco snap selfies with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who's once again seeking the party's nomination for president. Photo by Elizabeth Castillo for CALmatters
Delegates at the California Democratic Convention in San Francisco snap selfies with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s once again seeking the party’s nomination for president. Photo by Elizabeth Castillo for CALmatters

Anyone who spent the weekend at the California Democratic Party’s convention—watching 14 White House contenders try to impress what one Congresswoman called “the wokest Democrats in the country”—observed the following:

Saturday’s most rapturous cheers went to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who declared “the time for small ideas is over, advocated “big, structural change” and said “I am here to fight.” Sunday’s thunderous applause went to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, when he demanded there an be  “no middle ground” on climate change, healthcare or gun violence.

But those who strayed from progressive orthodoxy did so at their peril.

Ex-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper dismissed the push for single-payer health care by insisting “socialism is not the answer” Saturday and drew a sustained barrage of boos—not just from those who embraced the label, but from those who resented it. The following day, Maryland Rep. John Delany’s dismissed Medicare-for-All as “not good policy,” and faced heckles and jeers.

The San Francisco confab was the state Dems’ first get-together since last year’s blowout election returned the party to its majority in the House and devastated the ranks of elected Republicans in California. The delegates left no doubt that as they prepare for the 2020 election against President Donald Trump, they are in no mood for compromise or equivocation.

At least not when it comes to ideas that energize them.

But state party conventions—dominated in decibels by faithful partisans and zealous activists—often offer an exaggerated, funhouse-mirror reflection of what the party’s voters statewide actually think. And even the delegates can be more temperate  than the room might suggest.

In one of the few choices that the 3,200-plus delegates actually made, a majority eschewed more progressive candidates and easily elected as the party’s next chairman Los Angeles labor leader Rusty Hicks. He’s a soft spoken white guy from Los Angeles who represented what many called the “safe choice.”

Elizabeth Warren enthralls delegates to the 2019 California Democratic Convention in San Francisco. Photo by Ben Christopher for CALmatters

Elizabeth Warren enthralls delegates to the 2019 California Democratic Convention in San Francisco. Photo by Ben Christopher for CALmatters

Still, they gave an effusive reception to speakers who jettisoned safe choices. Here was Warren: “Too many powerful people in our party say, ‘Settle down, back up … wait for change until the privileged and powerful are comfortable with those changes,'” she said. “Here’s the thing — when a candidate tells you all the things that aren’t possible … they are telling you they will not fight for you, and I am here to fight.”

Few of the presidential candidates addressed California issues specifically, in the way they become conversant about, say, ethanol in Iowa. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s made climate policy a thrust of his campaign, talked about visiting the wildfire devastation in the California community of Paradise, and some candidates called for greater regulation of tech firms. But mostly their speeches sidestepped California-specific concerns and aimed wide in appealing to what Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee called the “most progressive and the most democratic and the wokest Democrats in the country.”

“This is obviously a group of activists and there are obviously some candidates who appeal more to the activists,” Dave Min told CALmatters at a meeting of the Chicano and Latino Caucus. He lost a bid for Congress in 2018 to Rep. Katie Porter, who was backed by Sen. Warren and supported Medicare-for-All. Now he’s seeking a state senate seat.

As if to illustrate his point, minutes later Sanders, who has done more than virtually any other politician to turn support for universal Medicare into a litmus test for progressive Democratic candidates, entered the room—and was nearly trampled by selfie-seeking delegates.

Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke turns on the Texas charm for delegates at the California Democratic Convention. Photo by Ben Christopher for CALmatters

Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke turns on the Texas charm for delegates at the California Democratic Convention. Photo by Ben Christopher for CALmatters

Next Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas Congressman who nearly beat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, entered the room, unleashing fresh pandemonium. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a relative moderate, was treated to a much more restrained, if polite, reception.

That courtesy was not extended to Hickenlooper.

“If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer,” he told the convened Democrats. He was booed for roughly 30 seconds by delegates who either objected to his characterization of single payer healthcare as “socialism” or, in fact, believe that socialism is the answer.

Regardless, the scene was unadulterated Fox News fodder.

The next day, Delaney of Maryland took the same approach. On the heels of Sanders’ raucously well-received speech, Delaney told the audience that universal access to Medicare “is actually not good policy.” The audience disagreed, vocally and persistently. Even New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got in the act, tweeting that Delaney should just “sashay away.”

If this is the first time you’ve heard of Delaney or Hickenlooper, that may have been the point. Hickenlooper later told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was not seeking the crowd’s vitriol. But the fact that his campaign blasted out a press release the day of the event with the title, “Hickenlooper to California Dems: “Socialism is Not the Answer”” suggested he might have been aiming his appeal far outside Moscone Center. The following day, his campaign issued a press release citing coverage from the Washington Post and exulting: “Hickenlooper lost the room but gained a national audience.”

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper made national news by irritating progressive California delegates. Photo by Ben Christopher for CALmatters

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper made national news by irritating progressive California delegates. Photo by Ben Christopher for CALmatters

Besides, the Democratic Party has a history of candidates strategically saying something sure to elicit boos from a leftist crowd in order to establish their independent cred with moderates: Consider President Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah speech, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s defense of capital punishment at her state’s convention—which her campaign gleefully turned into a TV commercial.

For Julian Castro, who served as Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration and who has struggled to gain much popular support, the interpretation was clear.

“You heard the reaction,” he said, when asked by a reporter whether Democrats can compete without supporting a single payer health care policy. “Probably not in this state. Who knows?”

Joe Biden might disagree. The former vice president supports a policy that would allow those under qualifying age to purchase a Medicare policy, which constitutes a moderate position among the current Democratic candidates. But at least for now, he leads in the polls—even among California Democrats.

The Biden campaign explained the candidate’s conspicuous absence at the San Francisco convention as an unavoidable scheduling conflict, though attendees for the 2018 Democratic convention may recall the chilly reception that Sen. Feinstein, another moderate, received.

The Democrats in attendance largely shrugged off Biden’s decision not to show up. Alex Gallardo-Rooker, who has served at the party’s chair since the resignation of Eric Baumann earlier this year, said that Biden was “being pulled all over the place.” Gov. Newsom also gave the former vice president a pass: “It’s a big country.” When asked about it, Sen. Kamala Harris literally shrugged—and said nothing.

The one exception was Sanders who, during his speech in the convention hall on Sunday morning, referred to “presidential candidates who have spoken to you here in this room and those who have chosen, for whatever reason, not to be in this room.” The crowd happily booed.

Sanders was cheered as he argued that there is no “middle ground” on climate change, a not-so-subtle dig at Biden who used the term to describe his environmental policy plan.

But to some, both supporters and detractors, the party’s choice of Hicks for chair represented its own kind of middle ground. Kimberly Ellis, Hicks’ strongest opponent who narrowly lost the race for party chair in 2017, had argued that the party needs to take a more assertive role in political messaging and agenda setting.

Rusty Hicks, in the blue blazer, at the California Democratic Party Convention in San Francisco.

Rusty Hicks, in the blue blazer, at the California Democratic Party Convention in San Francisco.

But with 57% of the vote, Hicks’ victory was decisive and the party avoided a much-predicted runoff election. Ellis got 36%.

For close observers of California politics, this might feel like deja vu. Earlier this year, the California Republican Party held its own election for chair in which Jessica Patterson, the pick of most of the party establishment, beat out an ideological upstart, Travis Allen.

At a Friday evening forum hosted by the Democratic Party’s progressive caucus, candidates for chair were asked, rapid-fire, about single-payer health insurance, a statewide ban on fracking, the Green New Deal and a moratorium on new charter schools. All six candidates were unanimous in their support.

Where disagreement arose, it was less about policy and more about the role of the party itself—whether the priority should be on building up the party as a political institution or promoting the most progressive agenda.

Asked whether the party should abandon the practice of automatically endorsing incumbent Democratic lawmakers or substantially reduce the power of elected office holders within the party, Hicks was the only candidate to say no.

Karen Araujo, a delegate from Salinas who supported Ellis, called Hicks “a safe choice.”

Still, she added, “it was a clear decision. I’ll honor that and I’ll work hard for my party.”

“It’s good to have a decisive moment where we decide, ‘okay, fair election, fair result, now let’s work on the next thing,’” said Josh Newman, a former Orange County state senator who was recalled and is running for his old seat again. “And the next thing has to be 2020.”

Elizabeth Castillo contributed to this story.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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June 1, 2019 9:52 pm

Cal Dems pick labor leader as chairman—plus convention highs and lows

Political Reporter

Web Producer/General Assignment Reporter
Democratic delegates rally in the downstairs lobby at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco where California Democrats held their convention this weekend. Photo by Ben Christopher for CALmatters
Democratic delegates rally in the downstairs lobby at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco where California Democrats held their convention this weekend. Photo by Ben Christopher for CALmatters

For the second time in a row, the California Democratic Party favored a labor-backed candidate from Los Angeles to be its chairman—although tonight’s (not-yet-certified) win for Rusty Hicks was by a stronger margin than many expected.

The preliminary totals showed labor leader Hicks garnering 57% of the vote, and he claimed victory, telling supporters: “I’m Rusty Hicks and I’m reporting for duty.” (Ironically that line was made famous in 2004 by a fellow veteran, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry—before he went on to sound defeat.)

Victory for Hicks places him in charge of a state party apparatus that has been reeling from charges of sexual harassment and assault. The scandal led to the resignation of the chairman narrowly elected in 2017, Eric Bauman.

That close fight left lingering bitterness: Richmond progressive activist Kimberly Ellis and her supporters accused the party of picking a winner—a repeat of the divisive national Democratic convention in miniature.

Ellis ran for chair again this year, vowing to shake up the party’s standard operating procedure, “rooting out” what she called “a culture of abuse and harassment and retaliation,” but also placing more of a focus on progressive policy pushing rather than the traditional nuts-and-bolts of fundraising and operations. Preliminary totals showed her in second place with 36 percent of the vote.

Rusty Hicks

Rusty Hicks

Hicks has also promised to clean house, but in his approach to the job and in his own biography, he represents more of a continuation for the state’s largest political party. He’s president of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserves  and an alum of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He had the backing of much of the party establishment—including Attorney General Xavier Becerra and over 30 state legislators and members of Congress.

Asked after his victory about the deep divisions that animated the race for chair, he said: “We should embrace the passion that comes into the party and also remember what our party is singularly focused on and that’s seeing a change in the White House in 2020.”

We’ve also provided a crib sheet as to what the 14 presidential candidates had to say this weekend to appeal to California Democrats.

Gov injects fresh controversy into vaccine debate:

Speaking to reporters after his convention speech, Gov. Gavin Newsom waded into one of the most contentious issues in state politics: vaccination exemptions. A bill advancing in the Legislature would require that state public health officials decide whether the underlying condition cited to exempt a child from state vaccination requirements meets guidelines set by the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Under current law, a doctor’s say-so alone can suffice. Critics complain that some doctors have made a cottage industry of doling out unwarranted waivers, putting public health at greater risk for outbreaks of measles and other diseases.

“I like doctor-patient relationships,” Newsom told reporters. “As a father of four that goes through this on a consistent basis, that’s just something we need to pause and think about.”

An early warning fails:

Kicking off the convention yesterday, interim party chair, Alex Gallardo-Rooker issued a warning: absolutely no booing or disruption inside the convention hall would be tolerated. The policy was inspired by the raucous and contentious party convention two years ago. “I don’t want a 2017 here again…not under my watch.”

Spoiler alert: It didn’t work. Read on….

Hickenlooper feels a chill:

John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, had a bit of strategic advice for the assembled Democrats: “If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big, progressive goals, Socialism is not the answer.”

The assembled Democrats were not receptive to that message. The booing lasted for about half a minute. It picked back up again when Hickenlooper argued that a national universal health insurance policy shouldn’t abolish private health insurance.

Kamala Harris upstages Klobuchar…

At a Saturday morning gathering of the California Democratic Party’s women’s caucus, the love for U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco was thick in the air. But Pelosi wasn’t the only one with hardcore fans. As Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was working to woo the packed room, she was interrupted by the entrance of California Sen. Kamala Harris. The crowd’s uproar was so disruptive, Klobuchar ended her pitch with a nod to Harris.

“And I always like to joke, as my friend Kamala comes in, may the best woman win,” she said.

And then gets upstaged herself:

At a “Big Ideas” forum held near the convention by the group MoveOn.org, Harris lost the spotlight briefly  herself when an animal rights protester rushed the stage as she spoke about how she plans to tackle gender pay inequities and grabbed her microphone. The protester was identified as Aidan Cook of Direct Action Everywhere. He was ultimately escorted offstage, and Harris recovered and responded with “It’s all good,” and the event continued. Not as far as BitchMedia cofounder Andi Zeisle was concerned: On Twitter, she described the the protester as a “walking kombucha burp.”

As some delegates clamor for the “I word,” Pelosi stops short:

Nancy Pelosi had much to say about President Trump on Saturday morning. She vowed to continue to “legislate,” but also “investigate and litigate” (a rejoinder to Trump who said during his most recent State of the Union address that “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation”). She said he was “undermining America.” She asked what he was “covering up.” But she did not use the “I” word.

But plenty of delegates in the audience were happy to play Mad Libs, shouting “Impeach.”

Pelosi didn’t seem flustered. “I told you this is like coming home to me,” she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom later said that he had “absolute confidence” in Pelosi’s approach to hold off for now.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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May 31, 2019 10:33 am

Californians can be nation’s first to cast 2020 primary ballots—and that’s shaking up presidential race

Political Reporter
California's move to near the front of the 2020 primary season is altering the campaign. USA flag with palm trees and sunset in the background.
California’s move to near the front of the 2020 primary season is altering the campaign.

With the state’s Democratic Party kicking off its convention in San Francisco today, you’ll be able to count at least 14 presidential candidates descending on California this weekend. And for a change, they’re here not just for our money, but for our votes.

California will be sidling up to the front of the electoral line next year, holding its primary on March 3. That’s a break from the last two election cycles, when California voted in early June, long after most candidates had dropped out or seen their chances mathematically eliminated. And given the propensity of most voters here to vote by mail, Californians can fill out their ballots as early as February 3, just as Iowans are heading to the caucuses.

The state’s size alone makes it impossible to ignore: Nearly one in five registered Democrats nationwide is a California. But pushing the state into the first round of primary and caucus states changes the whole makeup of the early electorate in the vital early phase.

The upshot, thanks to California: Candidates will be wooing a population that is not only vast, but more diverse (with a significantly larger share of Latinos and Asian Americans), more urban, and more focused on housing affordability than ever.

The state’s new primary falls on the first “Super Tuesday”—a nation-spanning ballot bonanza in which voters in more than a dozen states vote for their favored candidate to represent their party of choice on the general election ballot in November. While Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada get special permission to hold their contests earlier, doling out their delegates in a slow trickle throughout February, early March is when the floodgates open.

In 2016, the early primary and caucus states—beginning with Iowa and continuing through Super Tuesday—made up just under 30% of the national population. This year, with the fresh addition of California and North Carolina (but with almost four times the population, it’s mostly California), the total is 45%.

Just on its own, voters in the California Democratic primary will provide more than 1-in-10 of the elected delegates who will be pledged to one of the (now 23) candidates.

According to the most recent Census data, 39% of the state’s residents identify as Latino or Hispanic. To put that in perspective, that adds up to roughly 15 million—nearly five times the entire population of Iowa.

Adding California to the early primary contest means the states in the running on or before Super Tuesday have a combined population that is 22% Latino. That’s compared to 17% in 2016.

Likewise, the California-bolstered pack of early voters are, on the whole, more likely to live in an urban area and less likely to have voted for President Trump in 2016.

Of course, California voters tend to be whiter, wealthier and more educated than the state’s overall population—all the more so during primary elections. But even if you look at who is most likely to participate in the early primary next year, California stands out.

Based on data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study survey, which was conducted just after the 2018 midterm election, registered Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters in California are less white, more Latino and more likely to be renters than their counterparts in other early voting states.

A more diverse—and more Californian—electorate playing a larger role earlier in the election season could shift the terms of political debate. That was the hope of Ricardo Lara, the state’s insurance commissioner who introduced the bill to move up the state’s primary when he was a Democratic state senator. The change in the electoral calendar would put “California voters in the front seat in choosing our next president,” empowering them to “drive a different agenda at the national level,” he said at the time.

Rather than spend quite so much time tromping through Iowa cornfields paying homage to ethanol, candidates, the theory goes, might feel compelled to head to southeast Los Angeles to talk about affordable housing or to Tulare to talk about water policy.

But some remain skeptical. John Putnam, who studies campaigns at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and publishes the election website FrontloadingHQ, says the “California effect” in shaping the 2020 discourse is likely to be limited.

The state held its primary early in 2008 and that election was hardly a referendum on Golden State issues, he said. And these days, fewer and fewer voters are motivated by regional concerns.

“More and more, these races are nationalized,” he said. Though a campaign may focus on “lily-white Iowa or lily-white New Hampshire” and give an occasional nod to the federal farm bill or the obligatory photo-op with a corn dog, most issues discussed on the campaign trail are national in scope: healthcare policy, immigration, climate change and, invariably, President Trump.

And new research suggests that Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters in California don’t even hold positions all that different from Democrats elsewhere. With a few exceptions, Democrats in Los Angeles support gun control, oppose restrictions on abortion, want expanded healthcare and disapprove of the president in roughly equal numbers as those who live in Ames, Iowa.

But if the state’s front-loaded electoral role won’t translate to a larger focus on wildfire or homelessness, it’s likely to help California candidates. Or at least one in particular.

A recent Monmouth University poll, found that while California’s U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris was trailing in 4th place among registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in states with later primary elections. But among the early-voting states, she came in second—neck-in-neck with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Across the entire crowded field, Harris saw the largest advantage bump among early voters.

That is largely due to California, where Harris is generally well-liked among Democrats and certainly well-known, said Monmouth poll director Patrick Murray. At this early point in the election cycle, mere name recognition still counts for a lot.

The newest poll, conducted after former Vice President Joe Biden entered the race, shows him surging to the lead in California. The Change Research poll showed him at 30 percent among California Dems—ahead of second-place Sanders and with twice the support of third-place Harris.

That survey also identified the issues state Democrats cite as most important to them: housing affordability led the list at 56 percent, followed by homelessness.

But for those hoping California will be determinative? Murray says not to get your hopes up. The first four states—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada—still serve as the gatekeepers.

“Very few candidates are looking past those contests because there’s no point,” he said. A false start in February could lead a potential candidacy to flounder by the time it gets to California, as the bulk of voters throw their support behind the candidates who seem most viable. The fact that California is so large and so expensive is another argument not to spend too many resources here.

So for many candidates, their new fondness for California may still come down to money.

“The reason you might see candidates in California right now is that they’re doing a double dip,” said Murray. “They’re doing a fundraiser and then they’re having a campaign rally, as long as they’re out there.”

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May 29, 2019 3:33 pm

Shouts, tears and 67 ‘yes’ votes push police use-of-force standard through state Assembly

Political Reporter
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat from San Diego, speaks as a press conference flanked by Sen. Toni Atkins and Speaker Anthony Rendon after the passage of AB392.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat from San Diego, speaks at a press conference with Sen. Toni Atkins and Speaker Anthony Rendon, among others, after the passage of AB392.

For an hour and a half this morning, California lawmakers lined up to speak for or against (but mostly for) one of the most high-profile bills of the year. One member of the Assembly, a former state cop, choked back tears as he wrestled with the implications of his vote.

But when the rolls opened on AB392, which would make it harder for police to legally justify killing a civilian, the tally wasn’t even close. The Assembly passed the bill, 67 to 0, with 13 members abstaining.

Today’s vote pushes California one step closer to enacting use-of-force standards that would be among the strictest in the country. If AB392 is signed into law, police would only be able to use lethal force if “necessary” to defend human life.

The current standard, established by the U.S. Supreme Court, allows the lethal use of force if the split-second decision to pull the trigger is “reasonable.”

Introduced by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber from San Diego, the bill is a product of a long political tug-o’-war. On one side are criminal justice advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which has argued that current law allows police officers to justify all but the most flagrant misconduct. On the other are law enforcement groups, which have said that a stricter use-of-force standard would allow prosecutors to second-guess difficult policing decisions in often dangerous situations.

But most of the state’s major law enforcement groups are no longer actively opposing the bill, the result of an amendment last week. An earlier version of the bill defined “necessary” use of force as lacking any “reasonable alternative,” but that phrasing was stripped. Police groups argued that the “no reasonable alternative” would give prosecutors too much leeway to question every decision after the fact.

At a press conference after the vote, Weber insisted that the amendments had not substantially weakened the bill’s civil liberty safeguards. But the change seems to have helped clear the way for today’s vote among officials ordinarily allied with law enforcement, with most moderate Democrats and 9 of the chamber’s 19 Republicans voting in favor.

“In my entire elected experience never has a bill consumed my thinking as this has,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey, a Republican and former California Highway Patrol officer, who paused a number of times throughout his speech to collect himself.

He recalled a former colleague, “someone who was a very big part of my life,” who had killed someone while in the line of duty and, struggling with the guilt, later took his own life. But Lackey said that he would support the bill because he argued, it offered a balanced approach.

Jim Gallagher, a Republican from Yuba City, also spoke in favor of the bill, saying that with the new amendments it represents a “reasonable compromise.”

Devon Mathis, a Republican from Visalia, was initially the only Republican to vote “no” before switching his vote to an abstention. He argued that a lack of respect for police officers was the source of many civilian killings.

“We teach our youth ‘no means no,'” he said. “But when are we going to teach them, ‘stop means stop,’ ‘freeze means freeze’?”

That argument prompted a fierce response from Assemblyman Mike Gipson, a Democrat from Compton.

“I listen to all of you with your commentaries and words, but you don’t have to have my kind of experience,” said Gipson, who is African American, his voice reverberating around the chamber. “You don’t live where I live or grow up where I grew up.”

Weber, also an African American, said that the bill was part of a “400-year challenge” for racial justice in the United States. She closed by dedicating the bill to her two grandchildren. When the vote was called, criminal justice advocates stood in the balcony and sang “This Land is Your Land.”

The bill now progresses to the Senate, where a similar version of the proposal died in committee last year. But this time around, the bill has the public support of the Democratic President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego, who stood beside Weber at today’s press conference.

Earlier this week, the state Senate passed a police-backed “companion” bill unanimously. The proposal by Democratic Sen. Anna Caballero from Salinas would provide more use-of-force training to police.

Learn more about these two bills and about the legal, political and human dimensions of this debate by subscribing to Laurel Rosenhall’s podcast, Force of Law.

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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

Updated May 30, 2019: The charter debate continued as two of the four main charter regulation bills—one calling for a moratorium on new charters, the other for a cap—stalled. Senate Bill 756 and Assembly Bill 1506 failed to meet deadlines for passage in their house of origin; click here for details. The other two charter bills, regulating far-flung charters and giving school districts more control over charter authorizations, are still alive and move to the Senate now.

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. Further updated May 30: The discount pricing prohibition failed to be taken up for a floor vote in time for a legislative deadline, making it four out of five anti-soda bills on the casualty list.)

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.”

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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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.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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