This year’s legislative session, which wrapped up Friday, was different from many in the past. The budget was approved blessedly early, so state finances didn’t intrude into the late summer deliberations. With control of both houses, Democrats and their labor allies got much of what they wanted, and they got it early.
The upside – possibly the only one – is that state employee unions didn’t use the final day of session to sneak through an onerous raid on the state treasury, as they have in the past.
In other ways, however, this session was sadly familiar. Too many bills were introduced. Too many were passed. The Senate and Assembly – despite being led by members of the same party – engaged in their usual cross-chamber pirate antics. Bills were taken hostage, sometimes for good reason, other times for mere deal-making. Several that got out late did so only because one chamber or the other agreed to terms of their release. We may not learn of those terms for weeks, assuming we ever do.
What else was familiar? Transparency was trampled. In the final hours, bills were gutted and amended, force-fed like a French goose and voted out with barely a glance by lawmakers doing the voting.
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Early on, there was hope for significant revisions to modify, not gut, the California Environmental Quality Act, but the key element of the legislation that did emerge is an exemption for the Sacramento and its new basketball arena. A gut-and-amend bill to revamp marijuana laws started moving late, and was mercifully sidetracked. That means legislation regulating medical marijuana will return in 2014 or be the subject of an initiative in 2016.
At the urging of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the Legislature took what could turn out to be significant steps to help severely mentally ill people, making clear that counties can use money from the 2004 Mental Health Services Act to pay for intensive outpatient care.
Democrats held two-thirds majorities, but did not raise significant taxes, as some feared. They did, however, approve an increase to the minimum wage, taking it from $8 to $9 an hour by July 2013 and then to $10 an hour in 2016. Our region’s legislators voted the party line, with Democrats supporting the raise and Republicans opposing it, with the exception of Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, who did not vote on this bill, AB 10.
While we agree that it makes sense for California, with its high cost of living, to have a minimum wage that is higher than the national floor. But we’re concerned that the wage increase will further challenge small and struggling businesses at a time when they are trying to figure out how they will be affected by the Affordable Care Act. Businesses could be reluctant to hire just based on the uncertainty.
The Legislature also took a step toward allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, largely on the argument that it is safer for all motorists and passengers to get everyone who is behind the wheel licensed and insured. We agree with that argument. Cannella was one of two Republicans to vote for this bill. Sen Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, did not vote on it. Otherwise, again, the votes by local legislators followed the party lines.
The governor has shown his hand on some bills, promising to sign the minimum-wage increase, for instance, and signaling that he also likely will sign the driver’s license legislation.
But we don’t know what the governor will do with many of the bills. He has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto the bills that were approved at the end of this session. No doubt, some try lobbying Brown, but he often seems impervious to lobbying.
Since that may be a wasted effort, lawmakers might want to spend the time reflecting on how they might have made this a more productive and transparent legislative session.