Capitol Alert

The latest on California politics and government

June 11, 2014
John Vasconcellos remembered for his 'politics of trust'

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Former California lawmaker John Vasconcellos, who spent decades championing humanity, much of it from the powerful perch overseeing billions of dollars in state spending, was remembered by friends and colleagues as a fierce revolutionary of ideas and the social conscience of the Legislature.

The face of the Silicon Valley in the Legislature from 1966 to 2004, Vasconcellos pushed for groundbreaking proposals in early childhood education, medical marijuana and self-esteem. His passing late last month was marked in a well-attended ceremony Wednesday in the state Senate chambers.

Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown said he was not alone in feeling that he was never liberal enough for Vasconcellos. But it didn't take Brown long to discover Vasconcellos would be key to his leadership of the lower house.

"I knew I could never be deemed a reformer," Brown said. "But I could always have John to speak for me in that area, particularly if I explained to John how he could do some damage to all of us if he took the reform too far."

All 16 times Brown was up for the speakership, he said, it was Vasconcellos who nominated him.

Vasconcellos began in state government working for then-Gov. Pat Brown as his travel secretary. On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown said he later questioned Vasconcellos about whether people really needed more self-esteem, or less.

Jerry Brown said he and Vasconcellos were imprinted, or perhaps scarred, by their Jesuit education and Catholic upbringing. He described him as a "different, but kindred spirit."

"John believed that everybody was good and I couldn't get out of my mind that there was something like Original Sin. That people really weren't that good," the governor said.

Vasconcellos spent years as chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee, and Jerry Brown credited him with having a deep understanding of the state budget.

"He was a person who had a drive and a belief and a respect that I think is sorely needed in our particular age of politics that is not built on self-esteem or many of the values that John Vasconcellos (lived) for," Jerry Brown said. "Maybe some day when we get rid of term limits we'll have those characters again."

Former Senate leader John Burton, the chairman of the California Democratic Party, said it was amusing to look back and muse about how Vasconcellos was initially considered a moderate before morphing into a liberal firebrand.

"Was it pot, was it LSD, or was it just a natural progression?" Burton asked. "We leave that to others to think about."

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Secretary of State Debra Bowen remembered Vasconcellos' flurry of emails landing in the inboxes of his large network of friends.

Leno described his membership in the email tree as "a blessing and a curse." Just to keep up with the 10 to 15 emails a day took time and effort, he said. Bowen said she filed the all-caps missives in a separate file folder called "Vasco World."

"He would lay out his 20-point plan to fix the Legislature with 'the politics of trust,'" she said. "And then he would send it off to everyone for comment."

Former Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata recalled the pained look of Vasconcellos when he told Perata he couldn't support him for the post of Senate leader. Vasconcellos believed it was time for a woman and person of color to lead the body, Perata said.

Perata relayed to him that he understood. "I said 'John, you are who you are, and I knew that before you got here,'" Perata said.

But he said the conversation had a lasting impact.

"You have to think that a guy like John Vasconcellos served 38 years in constant turmoil within his soul because he was so good that having to encounter some of the politics of division, some of the hatred seen in our business, was very, very difficult for him.

"No one will walk again in the path that John chose."

PHOTO: Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. and and former Sen. Art Torres remember their colleague, former Sen. John Vasconcellos, as they look at a photograph of him following a memorial service at the State Capitol Wednesday. The Sacramento Bee/Paul Kitagaki Jr.

June 11, 2014
Tuck to Torlakson: Don't appeal Vergara ruling

Marshall_Tuck.JPGPortending what could become a major policy issue in November's runoff for state superintendent of public instruction, challenger Marshall Tuck called on incumbent Tom Torlakson Wednesday to support a recent court decision striking down California's teacher tenure laws.

"As one of the named defendants in the lawsuit and California's top education official, you are not merely a bystander in this case; legally and morally, you play a central role," Tuck wrote in an open letter to Torlakson.

"That is why I am writing to urge you to immediately drop any plans to appeal the Vergara ruling, and stop wasting taxpayer resources defending a broken system."

The decision issued Tuesday in Vergara v. State of California declared unconstitutional California rules establishing a two-year probationary period for teacher tenure, the process for firing teachers and seniority-based layoffs.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu argued that these laws deprive students of their constitutional right to a quality education by keeping subpar teachers in the classroom. Teachers unions sharply criticized the ruling and will likely appeal.

Torlakson, who was among those named in the lawsuit and would have a role in deciding whether to appeal the ruling, did not respond to Tuck's letter.

"He's focused on improving education for children and doesn't have time to waste on political stunts by his opponent," spokesman Paul Hefner said.

Torlakson issued a brief statement Tuesday that removing protections might make it more difficult for schools to attract, train and nurture top talent.

"Teachers are not the problem in our schools, they are the solution," he said.

Tuck and Torlakson have been locked in a costly and ideologically charged battle for the office of state schools chief. Millions of dollars in outside spending have poured into the race, with organized labor backing Torlakson and Tuck receiving big support from the private sector.

Tuck has been vocal about overhauling California's public education system, which ranks perennially low in national exams, and he has heavily criticized Torlakson's close relationship with teachers unions.

"Do you stand with California's kids, or with your Sacramento political supporters?" he wrote in Wednesday's letter.

Editor's note: This post was updated at 5:50 p.m. to include comments from Torlakson spokesman Paul Hefner.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Marshall Tuck

June 11, 2014
Education officials rip draft budget language limiting district reserves

Thumbnail image for brownbudget.JPGSchool officials are raising opposition to last-minute budget language that would cap the amount of money California school districts may set aside for economic uncertainties.

The draft trailer bill language, which education lobbyists distributed Wednesday, would limit districts' fund balances in most cases to two or three times the minimum required, a potential victory for public employee unions resistant to tying money up in reserves.

In a letter to Brown administration officials and lawmakers Wednesday, the Education Management Group, which represents school boards, administrators and superintendents, said the bill language is "fiscally irresponsible" and inconsistent with principles of local control.

"For most of the last two decades, California has focused on preventing school district bankruptcies by enacting laws that require multiyear projections, enforcement of strict fiscal standards by county offices of education, early intervention, and even the authority to override the spending decisions of local governing boards," the letter said. "It is therefore ironic that, at the very time an initiative has been placed on the statewide ballot to strengthen the state's rainy day fund, that the Legislature and Governor would consider statutory changes that eviscerate provisions at the local school district level that are based on the same premise of fiscal prudence and responsibility."

The Education Management Group also objected to the last-minute insertion of the language in a months-long budget process.

"People's jaws are still agape," said Bob Blattner, an education lobbyist. "At the very last second, it's such a significant policy issue to drop."

The trailer bill language comes as lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown move closer to a deal in this year's budget negotiations, with the Legislature expected to vote Sunday on the main budget bill. Brown and lawmakers last month agreed to a major component of the spending plan, a rainy-day fund measure that, if approved by voters, would increase statewide reserves.

Public employee unions had objected to a rainy day fund measure previously scheduled for the ballot. Kevin Gordon, a longtime education lobbyist, said he suspects "some linkage here to the rainy day fund and the fact that the California Teachers Association didn't object" to the new rainy day fund measure. Jeff Vaca, one of the Education Management Group letter's authors and deputy executive director for governmental relations at the California Association of School Business Officials, said the bill language is "probably as much political as it is policy."

The Brown administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Mike Myslinski, a spokesman for CTA, said he was unaware of any link between the rainy day fund measure and the trailer bill, but he said his organization supports the trailer bill language.

"This is all about understanding that school districts really must spend the taxpayers' dollars that they receive in the classroom," he said.

Fred Glass, of the California Federation of Teachers, said the organization is supportive of limiting reserves, too.

While a prudent reserve account is responsible, Glass said, "there are some districts that have 15, 20, 25 percent ending balances."

He said that "may translate into fiscal security for administrators, but it means limiting programs for students."

Editor's note: This post was updated at 3:28 p.m. to include Myslinski's remarks

PHOTO: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, left, Gov. Jerry Brown, center, and Assembly Speaker John A. PĂ©rez, right, celebrate a budget deal with a formal announcement at the Capitol on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Randy Pench

June 11, 2014
Eric Cantor was big contributor to Calif. lawmakers, candidates

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, felled in a shocking upset by tea party challenger David Brat on Tuesday, helped channel at least $570,000 to California candidates over the last decade.

Cantor is considered one of the Republican Party's most skilled fundraisers, using his leadership PAC to support colleagues and challengers running across the country, according to a review of data compiled by CQ Roll Call's Political Moneyline.

Cantor's PAC, the aptly named Every Republican is Crucial, or ERIC PAC, contributed $30,000 each to Reps. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock and Duncan D. Hunter, R-Alpine and $20,000 apiece to Reps. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove and Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale.

Brat challenged Cantor on his willingness to support "amnesty" for those in the country illegally, a point Cantor strongly denied in mailers to voters across Virginia's 7th district.

Michael Eggman, a Turlock farmer and Denham's opponent in November, seized on the issue and the PAC's contributions to his rival, contending Cantor's loss was a "resounding rebuke to a career politician who talked out of both sides of his mouth on immigration reform." "Congressman Jeff Denham has been put on notice," Eggman said.

Former Reps. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, Brian Bilbray, R-San Diego and Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, each received donations totaling $40,000, $40,000 and $35,000, respectively, according to the group's database.

Cantor's PAC also is supporting a handful of Republicans expected to face or pose tough competition in November.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, got $20,000 and is fielding a challenge from Sanger Democrat Amanda Renteria.

Republican Tony Strickland, a former state lawmaker who lost a congressional race in 2012, has taken in $20,000. He's in an intraparty general election with Sen. Steve Knight.

Republican Carl DeMaio, a former city councilman in San Diego, received $10,000. He's taking on Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego.

Republican Assemblyman Brian Nestande netted $5,000 in his race against Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert.

And Republican Elan Carr, a gang prosecutor pitted against Democratic Sen. Ted Lieu, got $5,000 in his quest to succeed retiring Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Beverly Hills.

PHOTO: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., speaks to reporters after a House Republican caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday. Repudiated at the polls, Cantor intends to resign his leadership post at the end of next month, officials said, clearing the way for a potentially disruptive Republican shake-up just before midterm elections with control of Congress at stake. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

June 11, 2014
Cops would use gun database before welfare checks under California bill

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The state senator who represents the Isla Vista community that was ravaged by a mass murder last month has introduced legislation to require law enforcement to check California's gun-purchase database before going out on a welfare check, and provide grants to help police take guns from people who are not allowed to own them.

Police checked on Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old authorities say killed six people in Isla Vista before killing himself, after his parents alerted them of his violent video rants just a couple weeks before the shooting. The officers did not find evidence that Rodger posed a threat to himself or others.

"Although law enforcement may not have had the legal authority to seize Elliot Rodger's three guns had they known about them, a gun database search could have provided additional information that might have helped them better assess the danger that Rodger posed to himself and others," said a statement from Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.

Her Senate Bill 505 would require officers to search the state Department of Justice's Automated Firearms System database before checking on someone who may be in danger of committing violence.

Jackson's Senate Bill 580 would provide funding to help enforce California's existing gun laws: $5 million in grants for local law enforcement agencies to take guns from people who are not allowed to own them; $10 million over three years to upgrade the Department of Justice's data systems used to register gun ownership and conduct background checks; and $50,000 for training police in using the gun-purchasing database.

"Both of these bills are about making better use of the tools and the laws at hand to help prevent gun violence," Jackson's statement said.

June 11, 2014
Bill would deny Donald Sterling a deduction for NBA fine

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The Donald Sterling drama reached the Capitol Wednesday when a Senate committee approved legislation that would prohibit the Los Angeles Clippers owner from claiming a state tax deduction for a $2.5 million fine by the National Basketball Association for making racist remarks.

Members of the Senate Governance and Finance Committee didn't defend Sterling but several worried aloud whether the legislation, which would apply to any professional sports team owners who are fined by their leagues for any reason, would violate freedom of speech.

The measure, Assembly Bill 877, was drafted by Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, as Sterling was engulfed in controversy over remarks about African-Americans that a woman friend had revealed.

The NBA fined Sterling and has been pressuring him to sell the basketball franchise. At one point, it appeared the team would be sold to former Microsoft honcho Steve Ballmer, but the deal is now in flux.

Bocanegra and other supporters said that allowing Sterling to deduct the fine as a business expense would reward bad conduct, but Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Irvine, said it would impinge on 1st Amendment free speech rights.

The committee's chairwoman, Davis Democrat Lois Wolk, at first agreed with Walters and opposed the bill but then switched and called for its approval. With her support, the bill moved out of committee on a 4-1 vote although Wolk observed, "It's going to be hard to get a signature (from Gov. Jerry Brown)."

The bill might not get to Brown because as a tax increase it would require a two-thirds vote from both legislative houses, which means it would need at least two Republican votes in the Senate.

PHOTO: Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling watched the Clippers play the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA preseason basketball game in December 2011. Associated Press Photo/Danny Moloshok

June 11, 2014
AM Alert: Lawmakers pay respects to late John Vasconcellos

John_Vasconcellos.JPGFriends and former colleagues of John Vasconcellos will gather in the Senate chambers at 3 p.m. to honor the Sacramento stalwart, who died last month at the age of 82 after struggling with kidney problems.

During nearly 40 years representing Silicon Valley in the California Assembly and Senate from 1966 to 2004, Vasconcellos was respected around the Capitol for his mastery of state fiscal details and widely known for his interest in human development. A committed liberal, his championing of outside-the-box policy areas like self-esteem and medical marijuana earned him national attention and sometimes ridicule.

A long list of prominent former lawmakers is expected to pay tribute to Vasconcellos, including Willie Brown, John Burton, Dede Alpert and Debra Bowen. The memorial will also be broadcast live on The California Channel, and a separate service is planned for June 21 in Santa Clara.

VIDEO: A court decision on California's teacher tenure system puts pressure on the governor and Legislature to resolve an issue they've long avoided, Dan Walters says.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST: Texas Gov. Rick Perry has made a favorite game out of needling California about its business climate. Yesterday he rolled down L Street in a Tesla, a reference to the electric carmaker's consideration of building a new battery factory outside the state, and he continues his latest tour of taunts in San Francisco with a speech before the Commonwealth Club, 7 p.m. at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, in which he sells his state as leading the way for energy independence in the U.S.

A NIGHT AT THE LIBRARY: When former reporter Greg Lucas was appointed state librarian in March, it drew some criticism from librarians who felt he was unqualified for the job. Will they feel differently after tonight? Lucas gives his first public talk as head of the California State Library, 5:30 p.m. at the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building on Capitol Mall, to discuss the issues facing the institution and public libraries in California.

GRADUATION GIFTS: Cable giant Comcast awards $210,000 in college scholarships to 191 high school seniors in recognition of their leadership skills and community service, noon on the north steps on the Capitol. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson is slated to speak at the event, as are Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway, state Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, and Assembly members Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, Frank Bigelow, R-O'Neals, Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, and Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo.

ANIMAL HOUSE: As part of its annual lobby day, the Humane Society holds an informational fair on programs to prevent animal cruelty, including "puppy mills" and abuse of farm animals, 11 a.m. on the south lawn of the Capitol.

PHOTO: Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, chats with Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, during a session of the state Senate on Aug. 10, 2004. The Sacramento Bee/John Decker

June 11, 2014
Dan Walters Daily: Court advances tenure issues long ignored by lawmakers

RP_School_TEST_SCORES_JENNIFER.JPGA judge's ruling that California's teacher tenure system is unconstitutional puts pressure on the governor and Legislature to resolve an issue they've long avoided, 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: A California Middle School teacher helps a student with a district test during class in Sacramento on Dec. 5, 2012. The Sacramento Bee/Randy Pench



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Capitol Alert Staff


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

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

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

David Siders David Siders covers the Brown administration. dsiders@sacbee.com. Twitter: @davidsiders

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

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

Jeremy White Jeremy B. White covers the Legislature. jwhite@sacbee.com. Twitter: @capitolalert

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

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

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