Capitol Alert

The latest on California politics and government

January 24, 2014
Brown asks Supreme Court to intervene on high-speed rail

HSRail.jpgThe Brown administration, which previously downplayed the significance of court rulings against California's $68 billion high-speed rail project, asked the California Supreme Court to intervene on Friday, saying the rulings "imperil" the project, threatening state and federal funding.

The request to the California Supreme Court comes after a Sacramento Superior Court judge in November ordered the state to rescind its original funding plan for the project. The lower court ruled the California High-Speed Rail Authority failed to comply with provisions of Proposition 1A, the initiative in which voters approved initial funding for the project in 2008.

The administration said in a request for expedited review that "the trial court's approach to these issues cripples government's ability to function" and could have implications for other infrastructure projects.

The state argues the normal appeals process could take years to resolve and is "not a real choice."

"Since the project's inception, opponents of high-speed rail have tried to block its construction," the filing said. "Now, two rulings of the Sacramento Superior Court - which are otherwise unreviewable as a practical matter - imperil the project by erecting obstacles found nowhere in the voter-approved bond act."

PHOTO: A view of a high speed train moving through a wind farm in the proposed high speed rail network. Rendering by Newlands and Company Inc.

January 24, 2014
Court again sides with California Legislature in pay dispute


State Controller John Chiang lacks the authority to determine whether a budget approved by the California Legislature is balanced, a court ruled, handing another legal victory to lawmakers whose pay he docked amid a standoff in 2011.

Chiang based his denial of legislative pay on a finding that lawmakers failed to pass a balanced state budget in an attempt to get in under a voter-approved pay deadline. The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento unanimously upheld a 2012 lower court decision, concluding that lawmakers must merely enact a budget bill in which revenue estimates for the coming year exceed the total of existing appropriations.

"At that point, the Controller does not have the authority to make an independent assessment that the budget bill is not in fact balanced because it relies on revenues not yet authorized in existing law (or in enrolled legislation) and on that basis withhold the salaries of legislators as a penalty for failing to enact a timely budget," the court said in its decision published Friday.

Chiang called the ruling a setback for important reforms voters made to the budget process three years ago.

"The ruling adopts the Legislature's argument that a budget is balanced if it -- without any independent verification -- says it is so," he said in a prepared statement. "This is a loophole that undermines the voters' desire to only pay lawmakers when they discharge their most important and fundamental duty -- to pass a budget that is both timely and truly balanced."

In 2010, California voters passed Democratic-backed Proposition 25 requiring lawmakers to surrender their pay and daily per diem checks for every day they exceed the June 15 deadline. The same law permitted them to pass budgets on a majority vote rather than two-thirds, a considerably higher feat requiring bipartisan action.

Following Chiang's action, the legal challenge was launched by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles. The filing specifically stated the Legislature was not seeking back pay.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge David I. Brown in 2012 ruled Chiang assumed budget duties reserved for lawmakers. The ruling essentially said the Legislature was free to determine whether a budget was balanced under the state constitution.

"The Legislature consistently made the necessary tough budget decisions over the last five years," Steinberg said Friday. "California is in much better shape as a result. Today's unanimous court decision is further affirmation of our difficult and responsible decisions."

PHOTO: California Controller John Chiang speaks at the Bee Capitol Bureau in 2011. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua

January 24, 2014
GOP presidential primary schedule gets California waiver

steel.JPGNational Republicans today moved to dramatically curtail the process by which they select a presidential candidate, including granting a special exemption to California.

The new rules are meant to shave off months of 2016 infighting by tightening the primary schedule and moving up the national convention. The party would impose strict penalties for states that move their selection dates out of order, such as Florida and Michigan did in recent years.

It would essentially compress the schedule from nine months to five months, from Jan. 1 to about May 15. It also requires a 45-day window between any delegate-selection process and the convention.

But California, New Jersey and New Mexico could keep their later primaries without penalty, and still be seated at the national convention a few weeks later.

RNC Chairman Reince Preibus described the changes as "a historic day for our party."

Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committeeman from California, said the waiver for California was a necessity. "That's been locked in," Steel, who fought for the automatic waiver, said by phone from the winter meetings in Washington. "There was just no way that California could ever be excluded from the national convention. We are the largest party in the country, we got 5 million registered Republicans, that's more people than most states have in their entire population."

Given the late date of California's primary - it's now scheduled for June 7 - it's unlikely the Golden State would have an impact on the GOP nomination, Steel said. "It's entirely possible, if not likely, that the nominee will have all of the votes that he needs by May 15 without California," he said. "If it's a robust primary with robust candidates, we could still make the difference. Either way, the so-called 45-day (convention) cutoff rule doesn't impact us."

Another set of guidelines to be voted on this spring is designed to reduce the marathon schedule of debates as well as establish the sponsoring television networks.

"The bottom line is you'll never see George Stephanopoulos asking Republican candidates questions again," Steel said.

PHOTO: Shawn Steel, then-chairman of the California Republican Party, urges the recall of Gov. Gray Davis as he appears at a rally on the north steps of the State Capitol Building Feb. 22, 2003.

January 24, 2014
California's union membership dips to 16.4 percent of workers

union.JPGUnion membership declined in California last year, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says in a new report.

The drop was from 2.5 million in 2012 to 2.4 million in 2013 and from 17.2 percent of the state's 14-plus million public and private workers to 16.4 percent, the BLS said in a nationwide report on union representation.

Other data have shown that the bulk of California's union membership is among school system and state and local government workers.

Nationwide, union members remained static at 11.3 percent of all workers. New York has the highest level of union membership, 24.4 percent, while North Carolina has the lowest, 6.4 percent.

PHOTO: Dennis Maxey, center, a Transbay Terminal worker from Oakland, joins members of SEIU Local 1000, representing 95,000 state employees as they rally at the Capitol on Wednesday, July, 1, 2009. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua

January 24, 2014
California ethics panel collects $300,000 from Small Business Action Committee

fox.jpgWhen California's political watchdog fined two conservative groups $1 million last year for not properly reporting $15 million in campaign contributions, it also told the recipients of the money to turn it over to the state.

At the time, one of the recipients -- the Small Business Action Committee -- put up a fight and said it had spent up all the money it had received and didn't plan to pay the state a dime.

The group is now changing course.

Today, the Fair Political Practices Commission announced that the Small Business Action Committee headed by Joel Fox has paid the state $300,000.

The money amounts to less than 3 percent of the $11 million the group received from Americans for Responsible Leadership, the Arizona-based group that admitted in October it had not properly reported its donations. Still, the FPPC's chief of enforcement said the payment is significant -- the second largest California has ever collected.

"$300,000 is a lot of money to any committee," said Gary Winuk.

"The purpose of the disgorgement law is to make sure even if you give a contribution and don't disclose the true source that every party down the chain is going to suffer the consequences, and I think that happened here."

The FPPC's pursuit of the campaign finance case has been watched around the country.

The Small Business Action Committee and another group called the California Future Fund were raising money to support Proposition 32 and oppose Proposition 30 on the November 2012 ballot. They received money from groups that acted as intermediaries in a large network of conservative fundraising groups with ties to industrialists Charles and David Koch, though the FPPC never uncovered evidence that the Koch brothers were themselves donors to the California effort.

By passing the money through several nonprofits, the groups were able to shield individual donors from being publicly identified as backing the effort to defeat Gov. Jerry Brown's tax measure and pass one that would make it harder for labor unions to mount political campaigns.

The California Future Fund is supposed to pay the state $4.08 million it received from a group that improperly reported its contribution. But Winuk said he thinks it's "extremely unlikely" that California will collect any more money in this case.

Fox, president of the Small Business Action Committee, said his group did nothing wrong in accepting the $11 million contribution but decided to pay some money to the state to put the issue to rest.

"We understood that fighting this lawsuit would incur large attorney fees and could be tied up in court for years," Fox said in a statement.

"Given that this is an election year with important issues we want to be engaged in, SBAC chose to put this lawsuit behind us."

Editor's Note: This post has been updated to include a response from Fox, clarify the Koch brothers' connection to the case and clarify that the the $300,000 is not a fine under the law.

PHOTO: Joel Fox. Courtesy of the Small Business Action Committee.

January 24, 2014
AM Alert: Caltrans responds to allegations of Bay Bridge cover-up

Bay_Bridge.JPGA state Senate report released Wednesday revealed what was apparently a deliberate cover-up of construction lapses on the eastern span of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. The project was plagued by structural problems, including snapped steel rods, before it opened last September, years behind schedule and billions over budget. Tests and repairs continue.

Among the report's key revelations is the allegation that quality control managers found thousands of cracks in welds produced by a Chinese contractor. Rather than ordering the needed fixes, top managers from the California Department of Transportation replaced those who discovered the problems.

The report sets the stage for an informational hearing of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing at 10 a.m. in Room 4203 of the Capitol building. Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who chairs the committee, told The Bee that he was "shocked" by the claims of a cover-up and blamed Caltrans' "insular culture."

Among those scheduled to testify at the hearing are Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty and several other engineers and officials from the agency. It will be Caltrans' first public response to the accusations in the report.

VIDEO: More people are leaving California for other states these days than moving here, Dan Walters says.

FUNDING FLAP: In a campaign finance case watched around the country, California's Fair Political Practices Commission demanded last October that two political action committees repay the state $15 million in contributions they had improperly reported. FPPC Enforcement Chief Gary Winuk will announce new action on the case at 10 a.m. at the FPPC building on J Street.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, will be in Millbrae at 10 a.m. to announce the winner of his "Oughta Be A Law...Or Not" contest. The bill provides recourse for students whose scores for Advanced Placement exams or other standardized tests are cancelled because of "testing irregularities." Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, will also be on hand to introduce companion legislation requiring test providers to release invalidated scores if there is no evidence of student misconduct.

SWEARING IN STYLE: This is a grand welcome to the state Legislature: Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, a freshman assemblyman from Los Angeles who won a special election in December, will be sworn in by California Attorney General Kamala Harris at a special community ceremony. Harris did the same earlier this month for state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who previously held Ridley-Thomas' seat. The ceremony takes place Sunday at 2 p.m. at West LA College in Culver City.

TRACK BILLS ON MOBILE: What bills bear watching? Get automatic updates with the new Capitol Alert Insider Edition bill-tracking feature. You can download the app for iPad or iPhone here.

CELEBRATIONS: Happy birthday to state Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, who turns 56 today.

PHOTO: The new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on December 4, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Manny Crisostomo

January 24, 2014
Dan Walters Daily: Net emigration slows California population growth

citizenship_oath.JPGThough births and foreign immigration keep California growing, more residents are leaving the state than coming these days, Dan says.

Have a question you'd like Dan to answer? Post it on our Facebook page.

See other Dan Walters Daily clips here.

PHOTO: Immigrants take an oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony at Raley Field in West Sacramento on July 10, 2012. The Sacramento Bee/Renee C. Byer


Capitol Alert Staff

Amy Chance Amy Chance is political editor for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @Amy_Chance

Dan Smith Dan Smith is Capitol bureau chief for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @DanielSnowSmith

Jim Miller Jim Miller covers California policy and politics and edits Capitol Alert. Twitter: @jimmiller2

David Siders David Siders covers the Brown administration. Twitter: @davidsiders

Christopher Cadelago Christopher Cadelago covers California politics and health care. Twitter: @ccadelago

Laurel Rosenhall Laurel Rosenhall covers the Legislature, the lobbying community and higher education. Twitter: @LaurelRosenhall

Jeremy White Jeremy B. White covers the Legislature. Twitter: @capitolalert

Koseff Alexei Koseff edits Capitol Alert's mobile Insider Edition. Twitter: @akoseff

Dan Walters Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @WaltersBee

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