What’s Behind the Committee Door?

Playing politics is like breathing air in Sacramento, so it’s no surprise that some bills, no matter their popularity, suffer ignominious defeats in committee. In fact, death-by-amending is a pretty common occurrence in the Capitol. But in one recent case of health legislation, a novel approach was used to go around an unfriendly committee.

It started in the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization. The name suggests a committee with a vague, somewhat innocuous scope of influence, but it turns out that most bills associated with tobacco, alcohol, horse racing and gambling have to go through “G.O.”

“It’s a juice committee,” said Bruce Cain, political science professor at Stanford University.

“That’s the term people used to use in the ’70s and ’80s for a committee involved in process and power,” Cain said. “Interest groups pay for access and influence, and for certain kinds of things like gambling, alcohol and tobacco, that’s the committee for those special interests.”

Lobbyist money goes into those committees and is usually diverted, at least in part, to party leadership, Cain said. “That’s the way the system’s set up, and it’s not just that way in California, it’s all over,” Cain said.

Richard Barnes, clinical professor at the UC-San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said the Assembly’s 21-member Governmental Organization committee has long been a stumbling block for tobacco-related legislation.

“That has always been the case. That committee has been the place where tobacco bills go to die,” Barnes said. “They know they can kill any tobacco bill by loading that committee.”

Repeated attempts to get comments from Governmental Organization Committee Chair Adam Gray (D-Merced) and Vice Chair Eric Linder (R-Corona) were unsuccessful.

Speaker of the Assembly Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) also declined invitations to comment on the committee.

Barnes said he is never surprised when a tobacco-regulation proposal fails to get through that committee, but he is always disappointed.

“To me, the fundamental question is, ‘Why does this committee have any jurisdiction over tobacco?'” Barnes said. “When you look at other jurisdictional committees like Health or Appropriations, they make sense. This is a real problem.”

It certainly was a problem for state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and his bill to regulate e-cigarettes. Just like it was a problem for another tobacco bill, to change the legal buying age limit, by state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina). The list of tobacco-related bills that have hit a brick wall in the Governmental Organization committee is long.

But in the case of those two particular bills (the Leno and Hernandez bills), lawmakers came up with a novel strategy. Even after the Governmental Organization committee effectively shut down both bills, according to the bill authors, legislative leaders came up with a way to circumvent that committee.

Special Session to the Rescue

The governor in June called for a special legislative session on health care, primarily to come up with $1.3 billion in funding sources for the potential loss of the state’s managed care organization tax and the court-required 7% bump in In-Home Supportive Services hours.

The special session was tabbed for discussion of Medi-Cal provider rates, as well. It was not originally intended to include anything else, but party leaders decided to take six pending tobacco bills — including the two by Leno and Hernandez that faltered in G.O. committee — and move them as a package into the special session.

No fuss, no muss, no G.O. committee.

“Anything can happen in the Legislature, if you have the direction and blessing of leadership,” Leno said. “You can’t get around leadership. So we are going to get this bill to the floor without the chair of G.O. being able to stop it.”

A number of tobacco-related bills have gone into the Governmental Organization committee in one regulatory form and left it looking very different.

In the case of Leno’s bill — which aims to hold e-cigarettes to the same public-use standards required of traditional cigarettes — amendments included a provision that defined e-cigarettes as not being a tobacco product, which disassociated it from tobacco regulations. That’s when Leno said he was disassociating himself from the bill, saying it bore almost no resemblance to the one that already had passed the Senate.

“This is not my bill,” Leno said at the Governmental Organization committee hearing. “This bill is dangerous.”

Committee member Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) also expressed discomfort with the committee’s reshaping of Leno’s proposal.

“We just passed a toothless bill,” Cooper said. “I’m disappointed right now. I’m very disappointed. Some of these things, I’m sitting up here and to me, it’s just disingenuous, some of the things that were said. It’s just toothless up here, passing this.”

Looking back on it, Leno said he was pleased the committee gave him the time to fully explain his position. He said he has dealt with committee opposition in the past, including times when a powerful committee chair clearly didn’t want a particular bill to move.

“Yes, it’s true, the committee chair and the committee members had predetermined what was going to happen to this bill, but that’s what a committee sometimes does,” Leno said. But in this case, he said, “Everything was so far off base, nothing was germane to the question. It was nonsensical.”

Hernandez declined to discuss why he pulled his bill from consideration, but said in a written statement that it became clear his bill would not get the votes to move out of committee.

Tobacco Influence Rising?

According to Stanford’s Cain, having a bill stall in committee means that legislative leaders don’t face the public embarrassment of voting down bills that conceivably might be popular with the public, or with an important voting segment of the public.

“It’s easier to kill things in committee without leaving a lot of fingerprints,” Cain said. “It can be hard for the public to understand, because there’s no real accountability. There aren’t usually headlines about a committee decision.”

There’s been a subtle change in the Legislature in the past decade or two, Cain said: “Tobacco has always been number one in terms of the interest groups Democrats detest. It has always been a danger to take it.” He added, “But it’s not as volatile an issue as it was 20 years ago.”

UCSF professor Barnes said it’s maybe not so subtle a change.

“A great number of legislators used to refuse tobacco money,” Barnes said, “and now a great number of them don’t [refuse]. The number who haven’t taken tobacco money keeps dropping.”

Cain said none of this is new.

“Really, they get the best of both worlds,” he said. “You get the money out of [the special interest groups], but you get to do what you want. There’s a compatibility of incentives from leadership and committee, and it works perfectly.”

Cain said the committee chairs take the flak, while the money finds its way into party leaders’ funds.

“You might think, ‘Are people really that calculating?'” Cain said. “And the answer is, ‘Yes.'”

Cain took it a step further and said he wondered if this might not have been part of a plan when the special legislative session was first convened. After all, Gov. Brown may be angling for a cigarette tax that might fund some of the health care issues he put on the table for the special session.

“But on the other hand, sometimes these things are coincidental and everyone looks like a genius afterwards,” Cain said. “It would not be the first time it looks like a genius move, but it’s really coincidence.”

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