Flags over the California Capitol in Sacramento. Courtesy of Sen. Toni Atkins’ office
On most days, California lawmakers deliberate, debate and decide bills out in public for every Californian to see.
Thursday was not one of those days.
In simultaneous marathon hearings, the appropriations committees in the Assembly and Senate rattled through hundreds of bills in a single discharge of rapid-fire legislating.
Many proposals lived to see another day. Among them: Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal for new courts to compel more homeless individuals to seek mental health and substance abuse treatment, and bills to strictly limit the use of solitary confinement in California jails and prisons, allow for the composting of human remains and increase family leave payments for lower-wage workers, though it wouldn’t take effect until 2024.
But many other closely-watched bills came to an unceremonious end, killed in one of Sacramento’s most opaque lawmaking processes. They included a Republican-backed bill that would have capped copays for insulin, a California Medical Association-backed proposal making it easier for doctors to approve procedures and prescriptions without first getting permission from an insurance company, and a bill to allow prosecutors to go after social media companies for knowingly addicting children.
It’s called the suspense file. For months, the appropriations committees, tasked with assessing the fiscal impact of any bill outside the annual budget, gather any legislation with more than a negligible price tag and put it to the side. Then twice a year, after legislative leaders decide which bills live and which die behind closed doors, they announce the results in a single hearing. In most cases, no public votes are taken and no debates are held.
In theory, this arcane procedure allows lawmakers to quickly run through the hundreds of fiscal bills they need to consider by the end of the legislative session, which arrives at the end of this month. The two committees ran through more than 820 bills.
In practice, it’s also a good way for Democratic lawmakers, who hold super-majority power, to kill legislation without having to take a public, and potentially politically difficult, stand. The stakes were especially high this time. The legislative session ends this month and many lawmakers will either retire or be replaced before the next one begins, making this the last opportunity for some legislators to leave their mark on state policy. Politically, it’s also a tense time: the November general election is less than three months away.
Thus, bills requiring gun owners to buy liability insurance and forcing law enforcement agencies to let the public listen to police radio transmissions were also quietly killed. Who pulled the trigger? The public often has no way to know for sure. We can only count the legislation that succumbed.
In this case, more than 200 were killed, while nearly 600 stayed alive.
Here are some of the bills that were culled — and the advocacy and interest groups that lobbied on them:
No Help for Diabetics
Dead for the session: A bill by Sen. Pat Bates, a San Clemente Republican, that would have capped insulin copays at $35 per prescription per month for diabetics. With insulin list prices increasing on average 15% to 17% per year since 2012, some state and federal leaders have been pressing for action with little success. A similar effort for privately insured patients was also recently abandoned in the U.S. Senate; Congress is, however, moving forward with a $35-a-month cap for Medicare patients.
“The decision by Assembly Democratic leadership to hold the bill blocked meaningful relief for millions of California residents struggling to pay for the rising cost of insulin. This was a missed opportunity for the California State Legislature to accomplish what Washington D.C. failed to do,” Bates said in a statement.
Her bill was opposed by the health insurance lobby that has long argued that copay caps do nothing to bring down the actual list price of the drug and would only shift the cost in the form of higher premiums.
Supporters said such a bill could have provided more immediate relief to patients. California has plans to manufacture and distribute its own, more affordable insulin, but that could take years. As of last week, the governor’s office said it has started a “request for information” process with drug manufacturers interested in partnering with the state. In California, 3.2 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes and many of them rely on insulin to survive.
— Ana B. Ibarra
A Mixed Bag for Tech Regulation
Amid fervent opposition from the tech industry, lawmakers killed a nationally watched bill co-authored by Republican Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham of San Luis Obispo and Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks of Oakland that would have permitted public prosecutors, such as the state attorney general and county district attorneys, to bring civil lawsuits against social media companies for deploying products or features they know will addict kids. The bill had already been amended to remove a clause that would have also allowed parents to file civil lawsuits, but that evidently wasn’t enough to overcome pushback from powerful industry players — some of whom gathered last week with influential lawmakers at a swanky Napa Valley resort.
Cunningham, who called the bill the most important of his career, pitched it as a response to a youth mental health crisis exacerbated by social media companies conducting “an unfettered social experiment on children.”
Cunningham said he was “extremely disappointed” that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairperson Anthony Portantino, a Glendale Democrat, made “the unilateral decision” to hold the bill and warned that “the bill’s death means that a handful of social media companies will be able to continue their experiment on millions of California kids, causing generational harm.”
“I believe that this idea would be overwhelmingly supported if presented directly to the voters, as it would be prohibitively expensive for social media companies to take every California voter on a Tech Caucus junket in Napa,” Cunningham added in a statement.
But tech companies countered there were better ways to address kids’ mental health than impinging on online platforms’ First Amendment rights.
“As we’ve said from the start, protecting children online is a priority but must be done responsibly and effectively,” Dylan Hoffman, TechNet’s executive director for California and the Southwest, said in a statement. TechNet, an industry group that represents such companies as Meta (the parent of Facebook and Instagram), Apple and Google, lobbied aggressively against the bill. “We’re glad to see that this bill won’t move forward in its current form. If it had, companies would’ve been punished for simply having a platform that kids can access. It would’ve done little to improve child safety.”
Also dead: Another Cunningham bill that would have authorized a study into whether using blockchain technology could help California’s beleaguered unemployment department verify applicant identities and prevent fraud — two things it’s struggled to do amid the pandemic.
However, other closely watched bills to regulate the tech industry advanced with amendments. They would expand kids’ privacy rights online, force social media companies to be more transparent about their terms of service, allow people targeted by violent posts online to seek an order requiring social media companies to remove them, and increase oversight of the budding cryptocurrency industry.
— Emily Hoeven
Pay Transparency, Kind Of
Lawmakers in the Assembly Appropriations Committee advanced a pay transparency bill intended to root out discrimination and pay disparities — but only after stripping out its most significant provision: To require the state to post for public view businesses’ pay data, broken down by position, race and gender.
That proposal by Sen. Monique Limón a Santa Barbara Democrat, landed SB 1162 on the California Chamber of Commerce’s “job killer” list, a designation policy advocate Ashley Hoffman said the Chamber is now prepared to remove.
Businesses with 100 or more employees are required to report the data to the state under a 2020 law, but the reports are not available for the public. The bill would have required the reports be published online for businesses with 1,000 employees or more by 2025 and 250 employees or more by 2027. The Chamber and other employer groups pushed back hard against the public reporting provision, arguing the reports are too broad to show discrimination but would be “held out to the public, whether it’s a media headline or a lawsuit … as representing something it’s not.”
Other parts of the bill, which proponents say will still help narrow the wage gap, survived. The bill would still require the companies also to report the pay data of their contractors, and require all employers with more than 15 workers to post the pay ranges for open positions and add state enforcement authority for businesses not reporting the data.
In a statement, Limón said that she was “deeply disappointed” in the amendments.
“One day California will lead on pay equity and our actions will match our aspirations,” she said. “That day is just not today.”
— Jeanne Kuang
No Leeway for Doctors
The doctor’s lobby took an “L” on one of its priority bills for the year. Senate Bill 250 by Sen. Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat, sought to ease administrative hurdles for physicians. More specifically, the bill would have required health insurance plans to exempt certain medical providers from prior authorization rules.
Prior authorization is seen as a cost-control tool that keeps doctors from providing and charging for unnecessary care. Health insurance plans must deem certain medication and procedures as “medically necessary” before a doctor can prescribe or render services.
The California Medical Association argued that reducing red tape would allow doctors to spend more time on patient care and less on paperwork — most importantly, it would help patients access the care and medications they need more quickly. A timely example: one Orange County pediatrician shared on Twitter that one of his premature baby patients can’t access “life-saving medication” because he can’t get a hold of the patient’s insurer.
Health insurance plans, in opposition of the bill, argued that SB 250 could instead lead to over-prescribing and inefficient care, ultimately raising costs.
— Ana B. Ibarra
Student Housing Money in Limbo
If lawmakers have a plan to spend $1.8 billion in loans to public colleges and universities to build student housing, the public doesn’t know about it. Held on the suspense file was a bill that would have set the rules for a revolving loan to build student housing. It’s a strange development for a spending plan that lawmakers and the governor already approved in the state budget this year. Basically, the money is there, but the rules for spending the money are not.
Among advocacy groups, the lone registered foe of the bill is the all-powerful State Building and Construction Trades Council. The construction union knocked the bill in June for what it said were “watered down” provisions to ensure that workers who build the campus housing are part of an apprenticeship program. But other unions whose workers are key to housing development backed the bill, including the California State Association of Electrical Workers and California State Pipe Trades Council.
The bill sought $5 billion for a revolving loan fund to build campus housing for students and staff. The budget deal approved over the summer would commit a smaller amount, $1.8 billion, for that purpose starting in the 2023-24 fiscal year. Either way, the idea is that the state lends campuses money to build housing, and as they pay back the loans over time, the state replenishes its campus housing reserves to lend out additional dollars. The loan fund would add to the several billion dollars in grants lawmakers have already committed to building student housing.
The bill’s author, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, said “we still need some further clarification on how it’s actually implemented in next year’s budget.”
What that language will look like is yet to be decided. “This is a budget issue and will be taken care of through the August budget follow up package,” said the office of Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat.
— Mikhail Zinshteyn
Police Radios Can Stay Silent to the Public
If they’re willing to wade through the crackly radio and police patois, reporters assigned to the newsroom scanner will hear about unexplained booms, cats lost, lawn equipment missing, kitchens smoking and shots fired.
That is, unless they’re in parts of the Bay Area and Inland Empire, where some police departments and sheriff’s offices encrypt radio communications.
Sen. Josh Becker, a San Mateo Democrat, and First Amendment advocates tried to change that this year, but Senate Bill 1000 failed to clear Assembly Appropriations.
At issue: a state Justice Department memo mandating that California police agencies submit a plan to keep identifying information such as people’s driver’s license numbers and criminal histories off police airwaves by December 2020. Some police departments ran with it, encrypting all of their communications. Others, including the California Highway Patrol, relay personal info on special channels while keeping most communications public.
The bill, while requiring unencrypted radio traffic, would have created exceptions: Officers would be urged to communicate identifying information through something other than a radio, and tactical or undercover operations communications could be encrypted.
Asked why the bill died, Becker said “I think there’s some misinformation on the cost side. This is not a cost issue. This bill would have saved money.”
The California State Sheriffs’ Association argued it would force police agencies that have already encrypted their radios to revert to their original, unencrypted transmission “at tremendous expense” — and that alternatives such as cell phones or laptops would not work in places where there’s no signal.
“We think it’s really critical for our reporters to cover not only breaking news, but also how police respond to those situations as they occur,” said Brittney Barsotti, general counsel for the California News Publishers Association, which backed the bill. (CalMatters is a member of the association.)
— Nigel Duara
A Cut for Carbon Sequestration
Thursday’s suspense file saw the death of Assemblymember Cristina Garcia’s bill that calls for sequestering at least 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in California’s wildlands, parks, forests and farmland by the end of 2030 — and more by the end of 2035.
The Democrat from Downey faced steep opposition from agricultural interests, who agreed that farmland can soak up and store carbon but questioned whether the targets were feasible. Critics also questioned whether the bill might alter the state’s forest management strategies to maximize carbon storage.
Despite support from environmental groups, the bill failed to clear the suspense file. “This summer is a stern reminder that bold action is needed now, and we must use all the tools available to us, it’s literally a matter of life and death,” Garcia said in a statement.
The move could be a setback for Gov. Newsom’s climate agenda for the final days of the legislative session, which called for state policy to “support sequestering carbon through natural carbon sequestration.”
Or it could signal that there may be life yet for natural carbon sequestration in another form. There’s less than three weeks left to find out.
— Rachel Becker
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.