CMA Capitol Insight: Whole Lotta Legislatin' Goin' On

May 28, 2013

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



Whole Lotta Legislatin’ Goin’ On


Pieces of legislation introduced this year – all 2,254 of them, to be exact – must leave their house of origin by May 31. That means hundreds upon hundreds of bills on the floors of the Senate and the Assembly are waiting their turn to be volleyed across the Capitol to the other house. To put it as kindly as possible, this would be a bad time to build confidence in the caliber of the Golden State’s elected representatives by watching them perform that voodoo only they do. There are many bills, far fewer minutes, and, as a consequence, many measures are up-and-out within 90 seconds, carrying their deficiencies with them to another house where, hopefully, they will be addressed in a more meaningful manner. The spectacle is more shocking in the Assembly, which has double the members and therefore double the legislation. They’re whipping through bills so fast it’s a wonder everyone knows what they’re voting on, which of course they don’t. While some of these bills accomplish so little that devoting 90 seconds to explaining their ramifications seems windy, there’s a goodly percentage of measures that carry potential costs for consumers and business owners, impact medical care for millions, spend taxpayer billions, regulate the use of various substances – toxic or otherwise – as well as increase penalties for crimes and benefits for public employees. Some bills generate a bit of debate but that often has less to do with the measure’s potential impact than its subject matter. Procedural changes have been made to avoid this up-against-the-deadline madness but the logjams still persist. Perhaps it’s one of those time-honored traditions that can’t be skirted, like razzing lawmakers when they present their first bill on the floor.


Do They Know People Are Watching?


Because of its insular focus and select membership, the California Legislature often has been likened to a fraternity. Like other fraternities, new members of the Legislature are subjected to hazing. Mercifully, there’s no public nudity or binge drinking or other disgusting acts. Freshman lawmakers just get their cages rattled by their colleagues when they present their first piece of legislation on the floor. The repartee isn’t very funny or very clever. Observing this ritual makes it hard not to quickly think that taxpayer dollars could be put to more productive use, particularly in a state with the Affordable Care Act looming, poverty, foster care, autism, a curriculum overhaul affecting 6 million kids, threats to water quality and a crying need for job creation. A long-time Capitol wag has suggested placing one of the “Your Tax Dollars At Work” highway project signs at the front of the legislative chamber as an assessment tool for those in the gallery and a cautionary reminder for those on the floor. And yet despite how juvenile, forced, trivial and irresponsible it seems, the hazing continues – just like the last-minute scrambling to move bills forward. Whether true or not, the perpetuation of both creates the appearance of a self-focused, non-responsive body.


I’ll See Your $1 Billion for Schools and Raise You Adult Dental


Gov. Brown presented his revised budget May 14, and within 10 days the Senate had stitched together its own spending plan. The Democratic governor said that one-time revenues – the state has logged $4.5 billion more than expected in primarily personal income tax payments since January – would be sent to public schools. The line would be held on spending in other areas. Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, has been saying to Brown, publicly and privately, that since the state is relatively flush, some of the programs cut to help balance the budget over the past five years need to be restored. In particular, adult dental care for recipients of Medi-Cal, the state’s health care program for the poor. It would cost some $131 million in state money to restore the program, which served 3 million Californians until eliminated in 2009. As it goes with lack of coverage for other maladies, so it goes with dentistry. No coverage, no care – until, too often, an emergency room visit is the only option. Senate Democrats say restoring the program saves money in the long run. The Senate budget contains $131 million for adult dental. A special Senate and Assembly committee begins work next week reconciling differences between the two spending plans before sending a $138 billion budget to Brown. Lawmakers, who can pass a budget on a majority vote, are penalized for not completing their budget work by June 15, the constitutional deadline to send a spending plan to the governor. Up against another deadline.


Say That One More Time Slowly Please


In examining Brown‘s budget, the Legislative Analyst says California will likely receive several billion dollars more in tax revenue than the Democratic governor says. The analyst doesn’t use the word, but the clear implication is that they think Brown is low-balling, lowering expectations by predicting less “extra” revenue. Senate Democrats are having none of it. They would like to increase spending, as noted above, in some areas where it was cut in prior budgets. Democrats don’t call it increased government spending, though. Steinberg, for example, refers to it as an ”investment.” A “targeted” investment, to be exact. In their budget, Steinberg and Senate Democrats use the analyst's rosier revenue outlook. Here’s how Steinberg describes this action by Senate Democrats in a press release: “By assuming the (analyst’s) revenue estimates but being very conservative on new spending, the Senate Democrats’ budget could bring substantial additional monies to pay down debt. If the Senate Democrats’ budget is adopted and the (analyst’s) revenue projections materialize, billions of additional dollars would be available for debt payments, reserves, and targeted investments.” Emphasis was added to make it a bit more clear that Steinberg is actually saying the Senate adopted the more optimistic revenue estimates, plans to use some of that non-existent but expected money to restore a few previously cut programs and, if the estimates turn out to be true, then the Senate has some extra money that would be available and could – but not necessarily will – be used to pay down the state debt. If the higher revenues of the analyst don’t happen, well then there won’t be money to pay down the state’s debt. Either way, it’s a winner.


Full Speed Ahead


As promised, on May 23 Covered California unveiled its list of health insurers who comprise the initial options for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. At a minimum, on a purely logistical basis, that’s pretty impressive. There was some tongue clucking after the announcement that the list of 13 carriers didn’t include the entire universe of healthcare providers in California. Aetna, Cigna and United Healthcare were cited in media reports as large providers who elected not offer their wares on the exchange This quote from Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, appearing in The Sacramento Bee is emblematic: “The question is how much people are going to pay and whether it's reasonable. Covered California cannot answer that question when it's left out of a lot of the market.” Is Covered California “left out of a lot of the market?” Anthem is in and they’re 47 percent of the market, according to the California Healthcare Foundation. Between them and Kaiser, they hold two-thirds of the market. Blue Shield, another participant in Covered California, has 21 percent. Aetna, by the way, has 5 percent; Cigna, 1 percent.


What If Johnny Hanson Jumped Off the Brooklyn Bridge


A recent issue of Pediatrics contains this article: “Ingesting and Aspirating Dry Cinnamon by Children and Adolescents.” The article discusses the “Cinnamon Challenge,” which is swallowing a tablespoon of dry cinnamon within 60 seconds and not washing it down with anything. There is a website touting the challenge, which claims to have 70,000 Twitter mentions each day, the article’s authors note. The site also encourages potential challenge takers to talk to a doctor first. “Obviously, they are going to tell you not to do it,” the site says. Taking the challenge can be “dangerous” and “it’s going to burn, you are going to cough and regret you tried.” There are videos of persons taking the challenge, one viewed 19 million times, according to the authors. Taking the challenge has led to “dozens of calls to poison centers, emergency department visits and even hospitalizations for adolescents requiring ventilator support for collapsed lungs.” Is it the influenza epidemic of 1918? Not so much, although calls to poison centers tripled from 51 in 2011 to 178 during the first six months of 2012, the period examined by the authors. Bottom line: Taking the challenge has a “high likelihood to be damaging to the lungs,” the authors say. And, they conclude somewhat obviously, “given the allure of social media, peer pressure and a trendy new fad, pediatricians and parents have a ‘challenge’ of their own in counseling tweens and teens regarding the sensibilities of the choices they make and the potential health risk of this dare.”


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