The Five Biggest Battles During The California Legislature’s Final Month

Four furious weeks of deadline pressure await California lawmakers as they return to the state Capitol Monday after their month-long summer recess

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By the time the Legislature must adjourn for the year — at midnight on Friday, August 31 — lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown will grapple with more than a thousand bills, including several that touch on complex and politically fraught issues.

Here’s our look at the five biggest debates they face in their final 18 work days of legislative session:

1. Wildfire liability (SB 901)

By far the most explosive battle this month is how to pay for the billions of dollars in wildfire damages to homes and public properties each year.

It’s a problem that’s amplified amid California’s changing climate and a battle that pits energy utilities like PG&E and their employee unions against insurers, trial lawyers and ratepayers. And it will affect just about every Californian who pays a utility or insurance bill.

The governor has, at least initially, sided with the utilities. He’s asked lawmakers to overhaul a legal standard that makes the companies liable when their equipment starts fires even if they did nothing wrong. And if this particular question is punted until next year, lawmakers will surely seek to do something to show they’re taking what Brown has called “California’s new normal” wildfire risk seriously. For example, they could require utilities to strengthen their fire-planning efforts while allowing them to “securitize” — or spread out — the repair costs over time to both ratepayers and shareholders.

A joint Senate-Assembly conference committee met for the first time last month and will hold four more hearings over the next two weeks. And be on the lookout for side deals and eleventh-hour shenanigans galore.

2. Bail reform (SB 10)

For more than a year now, an effort to overhaul California’s cash bail system has languished in the Legislature.

The Senate approved legislation in May 2017 to implement a pre-trial release system that would evaluate a defendant’s flight risk and danger to the community. But that bill has hardly budged since — despite high-profile endorsements from Brown and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, an appointee of former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Any deal with Brown, however, will need to address his concerns over the potential price tag; a Senate analysis last year suggested the proposal could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The bail industry, meanwhile, is mounting a fierce fight to protect its livelihood. The Assembly voted down a bail reform bill last year and poses the biggest hurdle to its passage.

One thing supporters of an overhaul have in their favor: The bail industry would rather deal with Brown than the man they believe will succeed him as governor next year, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

3. Net neutrality (SB 822)

Earlier this year, the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission repealed Obama-era net neutrality regulations. That prompted an effort to restore some form of net neutrality in California — an effort that has gone through quite a journey in recent weeks.

First, a bill that passed the Senate was gutted in an Assembly committee — a move seen by critics as a hostile takeover by a committee chairman doing the bidding of the tech and telecom industries. Two weeks later, the bill was largely restored by another Assembly committee.

In its current form, the measure in its current form faces significant opposition from powerful companies and industry groups, and it’s not clear whether Democrats can muster the 41 Assembly and 21 Senate votes needed to pass it as-is.

Also unclear: Whether the industry groups that engineered the bill’s first surprise committee gutting can reinstate amendments scaling it back in the notoriously perilous Assembly Appropriations Committee, which will decide what bills advance to the Assembly floor — and has nearly carte blanche to amend those bills — at the end of next week.

4. Police shootings (AB 931SB 1421AB 748)

When police shootings of unarmed black men or women occur in California, debate at the Capitol swiftly centers on two areas: the state’s rules governing when officers can use deadly force, and its major restrictions against making law enforcement records public.

Efforts at changing both have failed in the past. But backers are trying again following the Sacramento police shooting of Stephon Clark this past March.

One bill would largely restrict police from using deadly force except in scenarios where necessary to protect human life. Two others address police transparency, by ending mandated confidentiality for personnel records in use-of-force cases and requiring that video and audio recordings be released in “critical incidents” such as police shootings.

All three face strong opposition from law enforcement groups, which means they could struggle to pass the Assembly. Any that do pass the Legislature will face a potential veto from Brown, who has shown sympathy to law enforcement groups on these issues in years past.

5. #MeToo (SB 820AB 3080SB 1038)

Now that the Senate and Assembly have joined together to create a single, unified process to investigate sexual harassment claims under their own roofs, the Legislature will next turn its attention toward two bills that seek to address Me Too issues both inside the Capitol and out.

One would ban the use of nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment, assault and discrimination cases. Another would prohibit employers from requiring workers to participate in private arbitration to settle disputes such as sexual harassment claims, rather than going to trial. And a third would make harassers personally liable for retaliating against anyone who filed a claim against them.

While the Me Too movement (and its “We Said Enough” spinoff at the Capitol) have propelled major changes to laws and society at large, the arbitration bill’s passage is far from a sure bet: The California Chamber of Commerce has placed the measure on its “job killer” list, which holds great sway with moderate Democrats — and often with the governor, as well.

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