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CMA Capitol Insight: Relax, It's Only Act I



January 07, 2013
Area(s) of Interest: Licensing & Regulatory Issues 

CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Greg Lucas, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.




Relax, It’s Only Act I


The beginning of the New Year coincides with the beginning of a new two-year legislative session. And to the untrained eye, it seems like a flurry of Big Deal stuff is happening. Like the answer to so many things in politics: Yes and no. Sometime this month, Governor Jerry Brown will give his annual State of the State speech. It lays out California’s condition and sets the tone for what he would like to accomplish this year. The operative phrase is “what he would like to accomplish.” That’s not necessarily what the Legislature wants to accomplish. Before January 14, the constitution says Brown must propose a balanced budget. Here, again, the Democratic governor brings revenues in line with spending commitments in this proposal in his preferred manner. Traditionally, the media spends the most energy describing this plan – although it can change quite dramatically in the six months the Legislature is given to dissect and modify it. So, remember, no matter how breathless the broadcaster, reporter or blogger might be over what Gov. Brown proposes, that’s all his budget plan represents – his ideas on how to spend a little over $130 billion in taxes and fees sent to Sacramento.


Capitol Racing Form


Just like at Del Mar, a variety of factors contribute to final outcome. At the track, some bettors place great weight on the amount of waste horses jettison before the head to the start line. Others bank on the jockey astride the steed. Similarly, there are various factors to consider in weighing what might – or might not – be accomplished by lawmakers and the governor this year. Irrespective of the previous item, much of the final budget will be as the governor proposes. One-third of the state’s 120 lawmakers are new to Sacramento and, with but a handful of exceptions, lack the institutional knowledge – or power base – to challenge Gov. Brown, even if they wished to. Second, the governor has an arsenal of persuasive tools, such as positions within his administration, to woo lawmakers whose tenure in the Legislature is soon to expire into “doing the right thing” while still in office. Presumptively, a successful applicant would demonstrate an affinity for the governor’s vision by voting in a manner consonant with the administration’s policy objectives. Finally, the governor will get his way on most budget issues because the state’s spending plan is ginormous. Usually the Legislature and the governor clash on big-ticket items like public school spending, higher education costs and the quality of health care for the state’s poor children rather than the minutiae that comprises the bulk of the budget like the addition of 3.7 personnel years to the Office of the State Fire Marshal or some new computers for Bureau of Mine Safety field representatives.


Handicapping the Legislature


The flip side of nearly one-third of lawmakers having no Capitol experience is they know no boundaries. They are blissfully ignorant of the difficulty of winning passage for measures important to them. What they do know is that thanks to voter approval of Proposition 28 in June and the redrawn legislative district boundaries that took effect in November, they can keep their seats, in either the Senate or the Assembly, for 12 years. That means it will be hard for interest groups to wait out their departure and gives these new lawmakers time to become relatively well educated on policy possibilities and probabilities. Over time, that will strengthen the legislative branch, which has been weakened over the past two decades by the turnover wrought by term limits. While an internal issue, selection of new leaders of the Senate and Assembly could impact policy. Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, and Assembly Speaker John Perez, a Los Angeles Democrat, are both termed out in 2014 and will try to anoint their successors. The non-anointed might have other ideas. The jobs take on new significance with the ability of someone to hold it for as long as a decade under the new rules created under Proposition 28. There will be plenty of behind-the-scenes vote jockeying and, again judging from history, the occasional seemingly strange vote or two by a Speaker or President Pro Tempore wannabe on some piece of legislation important to some prospective supporter of their candidacy. Rounding out the legislative racing form is that although direct tax increases are unlikely to be approved by the two-thirds majorities of Democrats in either the Assembly or Senate, “there’s plenty of mischief to be made by that many Democrats without jacking taxes a penny,” as one Capitol observer puts it.


Overall…


The Democratic majority Legislature will use the state’s supposedly improved fiscal condition – a gap between revenues and spending of only $1.9 billion compared to some $26 billion two year ago – as arguments to restore various programs axed or reduced during the state’s bleak budgetary years. Gov. Brown will counter that California’s financial condition is still shaky and resist increases in state spending without commensurate reductions. But, again, the Democratic governor lays out his plan this month and lawmakers won’t really focus on it until mid-May after numbers are revised to reflect actual revenues collected compared to the estimates from last fall used in creating the current budget.


New Laws


Another aspect of the new year is the effective date of hundreds of new laws – more than 873 by the governor’s count. Many are technical or modest but some are significant. Taking effect January 1 – and touching the lives of many Californians – is the right of drivers to dictate, send or listen to text messages with a hands-free device.


New in the Workplace


Several significant changes occur starting January 1. Two – AB 2386 and AB 1964 – expand state discrimination protections to, respectively, include breastfeeding and wearing garb dictated by religious tenets, such as turbans or scarves. Prohibiting employers from demanding access to social media accounts of an employee or job applicant – AB 1844 – protects “all Californians from unwarranted invasions of their personal social media accounts,” said the governor in signing the measure. (A similar bill prevents public and private universities from asking for student social media passwords or user names.) This California Chamber of Commerce overview discusses the above bills and others affecting employer-employee relationships.


Don’t Read This With an Appetite


Among the new laws taking effect January 1 is the California Homemade Food Act, AB 1616, which allows commercial food businesses to operate out of home kitchens. Backers say the new law is a two-fer: It jumpstarts a new cottage food industry and increases nutritional options, particularly for Californians living in so-called food deserts, usually lower income urban or rural areas. There are some restrictions. Sales of a “cottage food” business are limited to “non-potentially hazardous foods,” which are foods that are unlikely to grow harmful bacteria or other toxic microorganisms at room temperature. For example, dried fruit, pasta, herb blends and baking mixes are OK. So are baked goods like bread, cookies, pastries or tortillas. But those with custard or meat fillings are out. Some jams and preserves are acceptable; others aren’t. The complete list, which can be found at the state Department of Public Health’s website, also includes fruit pies, fruit empanadas and fruit tamales as well as vinegars, mustards, trail mixes, cereals and honey. Cottage food operations can have no more than $35,000 in annual gross sales. The maximum for annual sales climbs to $50,000 in 2015. Registration with the county health department is required. So is a permit, which, depending on the county, is expected to range from $200 to $400 annually. Anyway it gets sliced: Yum.

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