CMA Capitol Insight: Where's Gavin Newsom?

July 19, 2013
Area(s) of Interest: Advocacy 

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



Where's Gavin Newsom?


No disrespect to the lieutenant governor but normally the whereabouts of the 45-year-old San Francisco Democrat isn't a major political issue. It's more of an issue these days since Newsom is in charge until July 27 when Gov. Jerry Brown and First Lady Anne Gust return from their sojourn in Ireland and Germany where they've been rooting around in the Democratic governor's family roots. (One of Brown's great-grandfathers emigrated from Germany in 1848. The other fled Ireland during the potato famine of 1845 to 1852.) The Browns are taking advantage of the small window between the signing of California's $145 billion budget at the beginning of the new fiscal year July 1 and the return of the Legislature on August 5 for the final frenzied weeks of its 2013 session, which concludes September 13. When the governor isn't in California, the buck stops with the lieutenant governor. Newsom would like to be the Golden State's governor when Brown hangs up his cleats. So would Attorney General Kamala Harris and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa but opportunities to showcase their capabilities don't include running the state in the sitting governor's absence.


Judicious Use of Time


How best to behave as acting governor to demonstrate both maturity and that indefinable gravitas California expects in their chief executive. Here's what not to do: Thirty-five years ago when Brown was last governor, he appeared to spend more time in other states running for president than governing his home state. Brown's GOP lieutenant governor, Mike Curb garnered a goodly amount of publicity by naming a "tough-on-crime" Republican to the state appellate court during one of Brown's prolonged absences. A subsequent court challenge brought by Brown upon his return clarified that Curb was well past the OB marker in appointing the judge. Curb was defeated in the 1982 Republican primary by George Deukmejian. Since Curb's day, lieutenant governors have been less assertive when acting as governor but remain equally eager for free airtime. Abel Maldonado, appointed lieutenant governor by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009 to fill the unfinished term of Democrat John Garamendi who was elected to Congress, signed various proclamations and declared various emergencies during Schwarzenegger's absences in 2010 but was still bested by Newsom in the November 2010 election. During Brown's time on the Emerald Isle, Newsom has kept a low enough profile that for all California know, Newsom himself could be out of the state entrusting the governship to Sacramento Democrat Darrell Steinberg who, as president pro tempore of the state Senate, is next in line.


The T-Word and the Big O


Taxes and obesity, that is. Obesity's recent recognition as a disease by the American Medical Association hasn't quite generated a hullabaloo but there's certainly been some hubbub. Is obesity a medical condition or merely a measurement? Whatever it is, the statistics explain why "obesity crisis" is a cliché: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say more than 35 percent of American adults are obese. So are 17 percent of kids. "Triple the rate from just one generation ago," the CDC notes. AMA says its action was intended to elevate the importance of obesity prevention and treatment. Nutritionist Linda Bacon of the University of California at Davis, author of Health at Every Size, objects to the classification. She and others point out that obesity is a definition of size based on a Body Mass Index ratio of weight-to-height. It isn't a condition of health. Says Bacon: "AMA just determined that some people are sick based on how they look. What's next? Will they pronounce being black as a disease because there are higher rates of cardiovascular disease in black communities?" Richard Besser, M.D., chief health and medical correspondent for ABC News, quoted by U.S. News & World Report, makes a good point: "We're already talking about the obesity epidemic. It matters less what we call it than what we do to prevent it." And that almost always leads to the T-Word.


Moderation or Abstinence


In the broadest sense, that's what every prevention strategy boils down to: moderation or abstinence or some combination of both. To effectively combat some diseases, like alcoholism, abstinence is the answer. For other conditions, modifying habits – including perhaps eliminating some behaviors – creates a successful outcome. The question California and other governments struggle with is how best to change behavior. Despite the health consequences – and costs – directly attributable to tobacco, neither the state nor federal government shows any sign of banning its use. Taxing tobacco products heavily and alerting smokers to the consequences of their actions are the extent of state and federal efforts. Studies show a higher price leads, at least in the short-term, to less use. Over the past 25 years, California has increased taxes on a pack of cigarettes to 87 cents. Revenue from the tax pays for a variety of smoking cessation efforts. Proposition 29, on the June 2012 ballot, would have boosted that tax by $1. A $47 million "no" campaign by the tobacco industry led to the measure's narrow defeat. In December, the state Department of Public Health said the smoking rate among Californians in 2011 was 12 percent, unchanged from the year before. More ominously, the number of adults aged 18 to 24 who smoke climbed from 12.3 percent to 14.6 percent. However: Ten years ago, the statewide smoking rate was 15.4 percent. Twenty years ago, it was 18.2 percent and 30 years ago, more than 25 percent. Is that drop solely attributable to higher costs for tobacco products? No but it was certainly a factor.


Sour Taste of Sugar Taxes


In contrast, Californians aren't anywhere near as eager to discourage obesity by increasing taxes on snacks and sodas. Nor is the federal government. Those who watched the shaping of the Affordable Care Act might have blinked and missed the amount of time negotiators devoted to the idea of using a soda tax as a revenue source. In California, this year's sugary sodas bill is sitting in the Senate Appropriations Committee where it has been since late May and is likely to remain at least through the end of the 2013 legislative session. The measure – SB 622 by Sen. Bill Monning, a Carmel Democrat – imposes a one-cent-per-ounce tax on bottled "sweetened beverages," including those made from concentrate. That's 12 cents more for an average can of soda. The tax, which doesn't apply to "diet" drinks, would raise $1.7 billion annually according to the state Board of Equalization. (Translation: There must be plenty of sugary sodas being poured down the hatch.) Monning proposes to divide this revenue up among a variety of "healthy" purposes. But it doesn't really matter since Monning has basically loved his own bill to death. (See below for clarification.) Milk and water are excluded but imagine how many powerful corporations and trade associations would be opposed to Monning's definition of "sweetened" beverage: A "non-alcoholic beverage sold for human consumption that has caloric sweeteners and contains more than 25 calories per 12 ounces, including soda water, ginger ale, root beer, beverages referred to as cola, lime, lemon, lemon-lime and other flavored beverages including any fruit or vegetable beverage containing less than 50 percent natural fruit or vegetable juice; and all other drinks referred to as 'soda,' 'soda pop,' 'soft drinks,' 'sports drinks,' 'energy drinks,' 'juice drinks,' 'iced teas' and 'vitamin fortified waters.'" If that definition doesn't create enough opponents to keep the bill – ahem – bottled up in committee, Monning also has the politically powerful distributors to reckon with. Under the bill, they would collect the tax. They don't want to. Game over. End of story.


Not the First Time


Back in 1983 when 25 percent of Californians were smoking, Assemblywoman Gwen Moore, a Los Angeles Democrat, introduced a bill to place a 7-cent-per-gallon excise tax on carbonated drinks. Never got out of committee. In 2002, there was a 21-cent-per-gallon soda tax proposed. The bill was passed but the soda tax was removed. Two more bills were introduced in 2010 and went nowhere. California has succeeded, though, in implementing strong nutrition standards in public schools and in requiring the placement of healthier drinks in school vending machines. The soft drink industry opposed the 2005 legislation that required the latter but now touts their compliance in self-promoting TV spots. Some may also recall back when the Internet was young, California's ill fated "snack tax" passed in 1991 and repealed by voters 15 months later in the November 1992 election. To put it in the most charitable terms, there were "definitional issues" in the budget-balancing move that also aimed at improving diet. Taxable snacks were defined as "cookies, crackers (excluding soda, graham and arrowroot), potato chips, snack cakes or pies, corn or tortilla chips, pretzels, granola snacks, popped popcorn, fabricated chips and fabricated snacks." Twinkies were taxable. Doughnuts weren't. Peanuts weren't taxed but pretzels were. Big pies were exempted. Little ones weren't. The confusion added to the tax's already enormous unpopularity. When the effort to repeal it qualified for the ballot, no one opposed the move.


"Loving a Bill to Death"


Back in the sepia-tinged Glory Days of Yesteryear, a common strategy for killing a bill was "loving it to death." This was accomplished by ostensibly supporting the measure and then amending it to broaden the scope – allegedly in the interest of accomplishing even more good. In truth, the expanded scope was a way to expand the number of opponents and, consequently, increase the odds of the bill's demise. As institutional memory began to wane with the passage of term limits in 1990, the strategy became rare enough that when used by veteran lawmakers newer members had to be told what was actually happening. On one occasion in the 1990s, when 18.2 percent of Californians smoked, then Assemblyman, later leader of the Senate, John Burton was carrying a bill to ban horse tripping at Mexican rodeos. Assemblyman Richard Polanco, who actually opposed Burton's measure, rose and praised the San Francisco Democrat for working to end such a barbaric practice. Burton's bill was a good start, Polanco insisted, but it didn't go far enough. Polanco offered amendments that would expand the measure to halt the "equally cruel" roping of calves and steers at Western rodeos. Opposition from Western rodeos would have doomed Burton's chances for passage. Burton informed his less-seasoned colleagues that they were observing a classic example of "loving a bill to death." Polanco's amendments were defeated. Sadly, such legislative artistry is no longer practiced.


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