State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg talks with reporters… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)
SACRAMENTO — State lawmakers return from their summer recess Monday to a budget scandal and a mountain of legislation requiring action before the gavel drops on their session in four weeks.
The bills include prickly proposals on pension reform, student aid and gun control.
Gov. Jerry Brown proposed an overhaul of the state's overburdened public pension system months ago, but the Legislature has not acted on it. However, opinion polls suggest many voters want to see that the state's fiscal house is being put in order before they'll approve the billions of dollars in tax hikes that Brown's supporters put on the November ballot.
"Pension reform would probably improve the chance for the tax measure, but the question is whether they can do what is necessary in the short amount of time available," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.
Legislative leaders acknowledged the pressure for progress on California's finances.
"We have to show people that we are doing all that is reasonable to constrain costs in the long term," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), "and pension reform is a major part of that."
He expressed confidence that the Legislature would "be able to get a comprehensive package completed before the end of the session."
Republicans have said they support Brown's proposal, which includes a 401(k)-style plan to supplement benefits for new employees and a higher retirement age for most of those workers, 67 rather than the current age of 55. But the Democrats who dominate the Legislature have not agreed to adopt key elements of it.
Lawmakers from both legislative houses have been working on a compromise.
"We're trying to find the sweet spot in the middle, and I think we're close," said Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Gardena), co-chairman of the committee.
A possible distraction is the controversy over revelations that parks officials had $54 million they did not tell the governor about while he was proposing to close as many as 70 state parks and that hundreds of millions of dollars were found untapped across an array of government funds.
The state attorney general is investigating the parks funds at Brown's request, and lawmakers have promised to hold oversight hearings before they adjourn Aug. 31.
In addition, a showdown is brewing over a bill that would ban Californians from openly carrying rifles and shotguns.
It was introduced by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) months before a gunman entered a Colorado theater July 20 and killed 12 people, injuring 58 others. Portantino said incidents like the Aurora shooting heighten awareness of the necessity for "common-sense" gun laws such as his AB 1527.
"The last thing anybody wants is … more people discharging their weapons in a situation like that," Portantino said.
Republican lawmakers see the bill as an infringement on gun rights.
"I agree with the National Assn. of Gun Rights when they pointed out that rifles and shotguns are hardly the weapons of choice for the common criminal," said Sen. Bob Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga). "AB 1527 is yet another attempt to prohibit something simply because it looks scary."
Another proposal dividing legislators is a bill to raise $1 billion annually for college scholarships by eliminating a tax break for out-of-state businesses. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) has been unable to get Republican support for the measure, AB 1500. It requires a two-thirds majority to pass, making some GOP votes necessary.
Other bills among the 800 awaiting attention would:
• Ban groups that hire lobbyists from giving legislators tickets to theme parks, concerts, sporting events and horse races or paying for their golf games, spa treatments and fishing trips. SB 1426 is by Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo).
• Allow Californians to register to vote on election day. AB 1436 is by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles).
• Create a state-administered retirement savings plan for private-sector workers who do not participate in an employer-sponsored plan. SB 1234 is by Sen. Kevin DeLeon (D-Los Angeles).
Inevitably, there will be "mushroom bills," last-minute proposals that seem to sprout in the dark of night during the waning hours of the legislative year. One possibility being discussed behind the scenes is a timber tax to address liability for forest fires.
Not every lawmaker approves of legislation created — and often passed — at the eleventh hour, usually without a normal public-hearing process.
Assembly minority leader Connie Conway (R-Tulare) said fast-tracking such bills undermines public faith in the Legislature.
"If we're going to get to some of these burning issues in the next month," she said, "then it needs to be transparent."