CMA Capitol Insight: Sept. 1, 2015

September 01, 2015
Area(s) of Interest: Advocacy 

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

Where legislation goes to die

This week was the virtual thinning of the herd for legislation, as the Senate and Assembly Appropriations committees held their annual suspense file hearings. The hearings involved every bill from the opposite house that had made its way through the entire committee process in its house of origin, and through all policy committees in the second house. Many of those proposals were effectively shelved for the year.

Measures with a price tag of $50,000 or more get moved to the suspense file, the legislative equivalent of purgatory. There, bills become subject to budget pressures, political negotiations and the whims of legislative leadership – all of which play a role in determining whether a bill lives or dies. The suspense file is also a great place for lawmakers to kill bills without fingerprints, and to shield members who do not want to be forced to vote on a particular thorny political issue.

This week, we saw dozens of bills die for the year, left on the suspense file where they will sit until the process renews again in 2016. For a handful of others, they are now moving to the floor for votes – caught in the swarm that marks the end of a legislative year.

Among the measures not moving this year was a proposed hike of the state’s minimum wage. The proposal, Senate Bill 3 by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), sought to push a statewide wage bump to $13 per hour, with automatic future increases to keep pace with inflation.

Leno pushed his proposal even before the state’s last minimum wage hike has fully phased in. The state wage went to $9 per hour earlier this year, and is scheduled to go to $10 in 2016. Since then, a handful of cities in the Bay Area, including Oakland, San Francisco, Emeryville and others, have passed higher wages – some as high as $15 per hour.

Assembly Appropriations Chairman Jimmy Gomez said his committee was committed to raising the wage, perhaps as early as next year. But he raised questions as to whether there should be one statewide standard or different minimum wages in different parts of the state.

“Californians need an approach to raising the minimum wage that is sensitive to local economies and is appropriately accounted for in the State Budget,” Gomez said in a statement. “The Appropriations Committee will work with the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Speaker and others to ensure we review a comprehensive array of options to rationally increase the minimum wage throughout the state, including the potential for regional increases that reflect differing economies.”

This week also saw some leadership skirmishes in both houses, with some very different results. First, Senate Republicans opted to change leaders earlier than expected, replacing outgoing Sen. Bob Huff with Sen. Jean Fuller, who was scheduled to take over the job after this year’s legislative session had come to a close.

Speculation swirled that the timeline was accelerated because Huff may be inclined to support some of the revenue proposals on the table in the Legislature’s special sessions on transportation and health care. Those are positions that others in the caucus may not wish to support.

But Huff has other ambitions. The termed-out Senator has announced his candidacy for Los Angeles County supervisor. Appealing to Democratic and independent voters may be key to Huff’s election plans in Los Angeles.

For her part, Fuller told reporters that the decision had nothing to do with any caucus sentiment that Huff has been too amenable to any of the proposed taxes. But she did say that making the move now was her decision.

In the Assembly, a strange letter surfaced from Speaker Toni Atkins, urging would-be candidates to replace her to cool their jets until January.

A spokesman for Atkins told The Sacramento Bee that the intention of the letter was to ensure that lawmakers were not distracted during the home stretch of the legislative year.

It is an axiom of internal Capitol politics that when a member has the votes to become leader of his or her respective caucus, they don’t wait for a schedule or timeline. That’s why these leadership squabbles often end with hurt feelings and bruised egos. These transitions are rarely easy, and always get a bit messy around the edges. This year appears to be no exception.

Amid the policy debates that will shape the future of our state, lawmakers are also being roped into more micro, personal political conflicts that could increase tensions as the legislative year draws to a close.


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