Dan Walters

June 2, 2013

Dan Walters: How is this California Legislature different? Let us count the ways

Every legislative session has its own ambiance, but the current version that began six months ago is colored by unique, even historic, conditions.

Every legislative session has its own ambiance, but the current version that began six months ago is colored by unique, even historic, conditions.

It's the first since an independent commission redrew legislative districts. The 2012 elections were the first with a "top-two" primary system. Nearly half of the Assembly's 80 members are new to the Capitol. A revised term-limit rule would allow them to serve for as long as 12 years, and Democrats won two-thirds "supermajorities" in both houses.

The 2013 session's first phase ended Friday when hundreds of bills faced a deadline for first house approval. The week's marathon floor debates indicated how the session shapes up:

The much-discussed supermajorities have had virtually no impact so far, largely because legislative leaders sidetracked billions of dollars in tax increases, openly concerned about a voter backlash. However, supermajorities could become factors next year in placing bond issues and constitutional amendments on the 2014 ballot.

Major interest groups that helped Democrats gain seats in 2012 – especially unions, environmentalists, consumer advocates and personal injury attorneys – have pushed ambitious agendas that drew opposition from business and employer groups and, sometimes, local governments.

Unions have been particularly active, sponsoring dozens of bills to make it easier for them to sign up new members (such as child care workers) and/or enhance their bargaining positions. Several union bills target Wal-Mart, while others hit local governments by restricting contracting-out of services and making it more difficult for them to use non-union contractors.

Trendiness is a major trend this year, with legislators flooding agendas with bills that appear to be ripped from the headlines, such as those to restrict or even prohibit "fracking" in drilling for shale oil and impose many new restrictions on private gun ownership.

There's an interesting contrast between the many gun bills, which would, in some instances, criminalize what has been completely legal ownership of some firearms, and other bills that would decriminalize marijuana and soften treatment of some convicted criminals, especially juveniles.

The looming implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which will provide health insurance to several million Californians at a cost of many billions of dollars, generated a flood of bills to carve up the pie, including those to expand the "scope of practice" of non-physician providers such as nurses, pharmacists and optometrists into procedures now reserved for physicians.

Two years after eliminating redevelopment programs of local governments, the Legislature seems to be moving a spate of bills to reinstate them, albeit under other names.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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