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

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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