Seven Sacramento Debates in August You Won’t Want to Miss

State Capitol, Sacramento (David Paul Morris/Getty Images).
State Capitol, Sacramento (David Paul Morris/Getty Images).

California’s Legislature returns to Sacramento as the week begins for its final month in session. And there are plenty of important, or just politically fascinating, debates to watch before lawmakers head home at the end of August for the last time in 2014.

And the stakes are high. These are the final four weeks of the legislative session that began in January 2013, which means some long-running policy debates are now down to just the final few deals and debates. It’s also the last hurrah for 32 legislators who will leave their seats in the state Capitol, due to either term limits or early departures.

There are almost 100 bills that my KQED News colleagues and I think could be of interest over these next few weeks, ones on which we’ll be keeping an eye. But like any list, only some of those are ones that are really worth watching.

And so, a quick glance at what could be called the “Lucky Seven” — an unranked list of seven bills or groups of bills on a single issue that are likely to dominate the buzz this August under the Capitol dome.

The Costs of Paid Sick Leave

While many Californians get a few days off with pay when they’re sick or must care for a sick family member, many low-wage jobs offer no such benefit. That divide is at the heart of Assembly Bill 1522, a proposal to require most employers to offer a minimum of three paid sick days beginning next July.

The debate comes down to, not surprisingly, money. AB1522’s backers and its author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), point to the cost of unproductive workers forced to work while sick as well as the impact on families of workers in what are generally low-wage jobs. Opponents, led by the powerful California Chamber of Commerce, contend AB1522 will force strapped small businesses to raise prices, cut employee hours or possibly eliminate jobs.

AB1522 is the latest in a long line of big labor-versus-business battles in California. Should it make it through the Legislature, the question becomes whether Gov. Jerry Brown — courting both labor and business in an election year — will sign it into law.

The Impact of Isla Vista Tragedy

2013 was generally seen as a huge year in the debate over California gun laws, but 2014 features two proposals to watch that were crafted in the aftermath of the May 23 tragedy in Isla Vista, when a troubled 22-year-old student killed six people in the Santa Barbara college community before taking his own life.

Both bills seek changes based on the facts of the case: Senate Bill 505 by state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) would require law enforcement to check whether a person who’s been identified as possibly being a danger is registered as a gun owner, as was the case with the assailant. And beyond that, Assembly Bill 1014 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would permit someone’s guns to be temporarily taken from them if there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the person is a danger.

Cap and Trade, Pump and Pay?

This debate is (no pun intended) fueled by something that hasn’t yet happened. Next year, California’s cap on carbon emissions, imposed by 2006’s landmark climate change law, will expand to include the impact from fuel production. There’s been a long debate about whether what will happen in 2015 will force higher gas prices. The ticking clock on the state action, combined with 2014 being an election year, has opponents pushing hard for the Legislature to step in and delay the carbon cap on fuels until 2017. And there are some new and intense accusations being leveled, from dire economic impact to big costs for low-income, more ethnically diverse, rural Californians.

A bill to delay the fuels cap, Assembly Bill 69, was introduced in early July by Assemblyman Henry Perea (D-Fresno). Perea has come under attack from environmental groups, and his proposal is being fought by the state’s Air Resources Board. Perea recently told my KQED colleague Scott Detrow that working-class Latinos in his district will suffer if the bill fails to delay the carbon cap’s expansion to fuels. And just last week, billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer vowed to fight the statehouse proposal. The bill’s odds are long, given the power of environmental interest groups in the Capitol and with Gov. Jerry Brown being a fierce defender of the existing cap-and-trade plans. Still, the debate is going to be one to watch.

The Odds of More Legal Gambling

California’s approval of Vegas-style casinos on tribal reservations was one of the biggest political game changers in state history. The 1998 and 2000 ballot measures paved the way for billions of dollars in casino revenues for several dozen tribes, and made those tribes big players in electoral politics.

This month, two new chapters in the state’s Indian gaming story might be written. The first features a showdown over a Yuba County casino proposal that’s been stuck in the Legislature for more than a year. The compact signed in 2012 by the governor and the Estom Yumeka Maidu Tribe of the Enterprise Rancheria calls for a project north of Sacramento that officials consider to be an “off-reservation” casino — none of which has ever been built in California. Another off-reservation project, a Madera County tribal casino compact ratified by the Legislature in 2013, sparked criticism and ultimately a statewide referendum this fall, Proposition 48. The Yuba project, as a result, remains stuck in neutral unless legislators ratify it this month by passing Assembly Bill 1098, written by Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced).

Meanwhile, existing gaming tribes are duking it out over efforts to legalize online poker in California. Assembly Bill 2291 by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-LA) and Senate Bill 1366 by state Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) are the two legislative vehicles for what have been months of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations over who would run online poker sites, how those sites would work and what limitations the state would impose. Odds are this fight drags on until the final days, or even hours, of the Legislature’s work. Big, big bucks are on the line.

Bonds. Big Bonds.

Few people in Sacramento will be as focused over the next two weeks on the mood of this fall’s voters as lawmakers and interest groups haggling over a new water bond for the Nov. 4 ballot. There’s probably only about a week left for the Legislature to place any new bond measure on the Nov. 4 ballot (and even now, it’s missed the official deadline). An existing $11 billion water bond, Proposition 43, was crafted back in 2010 and is now considered too costly to pass electoral muster. So can the eternally warring sides agree on something smaller?

And then, there’s a push by education groups for a multibillion-dollar school bond, something in the range of $3 billion to $6 billion. Gov. Brown is the real holdout on this proposal, Assembly Bill 2235 by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo); his reluctance to place any big borrowing on the ballot while his re-election campaign talks about lowering the state’s debt is well known. And while he finally endorsed a water bond (smaller than everyone else wants), a school bond may be something he’s unwilling to accept – even though a bipartisan alliance says schools are bursting with unfunded construction projects.

Scandalously Speaking

The past year and a half has provided a series of black eyes to the reputation of the Legislature — from three senators indicted or found guilty of felony crimes and corruption to lobbyists and consultants punished for breaking state regulations. Keep an eye out for what happens with a series of bills that majority Democrats, mainly in the Senate, have been pushing to help clean up the body’s reputation. They include Senate Constitutional Amendment 17 (Steinberg), a ballot measure for voters to punish future suspended legislators by stripping them of their paychecks; Senate Bills 1441 (Lara) and 1443 (de León), new limits on the campaign activities of lobbyists; and Senate Bill 831 (Hill), to limit legislator gifts and spending campaign cash for personal use. Hard to see any legislator voting against these, but the steam behind them seems to have eased off in recent months.

Goodbye, Voter-Approved Laws?

Finally, keep an eye on what should be intense partisan debates over two of California’s most famous initiatives from the 1990s, efforts to rescind laws approved by voters, bills that will force Brown to take a stand on hot-button immigration-related topics and proposals with which legislative Democrats hope to politically skewer Republicans.

Senate Bill 1174 by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-L.A.) would effectively dismantle the 1998 initiative that required almost all K-12 students be taught only in English. The bill would broaden the ability for non-English instruction, a big change from what 61 percent of voters approved in Proposition 227.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 396 by state Sen. Kevin de León (D-L.A.), would repeal the vast majority of 1994’s Proposition 187, the contentious initiative denying access to public services to those without legal residency status. Prop. 187 remains one of the most influential fights in California political history, galvanizing Latino anger and deeply damaging the state Republican Party’s relationship with that fast-growing (and now dominant) segment of the population. Prop. 187 never really took effect, with the courts blocking its implementation and a refusal by governors following its champion, former Gov. Pete Wilson, from continuing to support it in the courts. SB396 would delete those dormant provisions from state law, and comes in the midst of a growing new debate over illegal immigration.

There are many, many more bills and fights to watch. Stay tuned. It’s going to be a busy and fascinating month to come.

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John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he served nine years as the statehouse bureau chief for KQED Public Radio and The California Report, and most recently as political editor for the Sacramento ABC-TV affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John served as moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and was recently named by The Washington Post as one of the nation's most influential statehouse reporters.  Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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