Members of the California Assembly buzz around the chamber like kids just back to school after a long summer break. Colleagues greet each other and catch up, having spent a month away from Sacramento on summer recess. And like a stern teacher, Speaker pro Tem Nora Campos had to ask everyone to settle down.
But Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway said the excitement will soon give way to a more studious atmosphere.
“It’s like the first day of school,” she said, “it’s good to be back and see everybody. But there’s homework, lots of homework. And then there’s really big tests.”
Tests on a variety of subjects in just six weeks.
“We have roughly 1,100 bills between the two houses that are still active,” said Assembly Speaker John Perez.
Which bills receive top priority depends on who you talk to. Steve Smith is with the California Labor Federation. He says his organization is pushing to protect immigrant workers from employer retaliation.
“Immigrant workers are, I think, some of the most vulnerable workers in California to this sort of exploitation,” he said. “So we think, in addition to federal immigration reform, this is an important safeguard for workers in California.”
Several environment issues will also garner a lot of attention. Dan Jacobson is with Environment California. He’s keeping an eye on a possible overhaul of the California Environmental Quality Act.
“CEQA’s probably the best environmental law in the country for keeping California looking it’s supposed to look,” he said. “And there’s plenty of developers and other that want to try to make changes and run roughshod over the great environmental quality laws that we have.”
Jacobson may not have to worry. Perez said he’s not optimistic any significant changes will be made to CEQA this year. He does expect a vigorous debate about “fracking,” which is a controversial method for extracting oil and gas from the earth. He supports the final surviving bill, which calls for strict regulation of the industry.
“I think it’s in line with a narrow majority, but a majority non-the-less, of the people of California who are very concerned about the implications of fracking,” he said.
Several business issues are also likely to draw some attention. Governor Jerry Brown is working with labor and business groups on paying back the $10 billion the state’s unemployment trust fund currently owes the federal government.
A measure approved by the Assembly and pending in the Senate would increase the state’s minimum wage. Smith said that’s a priority for labor too. He notes the state’s minimum wage hasn’t gone up in five years.
“We’ve been outpaced by neighboring states, including Washington, Oregon and Nevada when it comes to minimum wage,” he said. “We’re way behind.”
Republican leader Conway said you can’t forget about bills that may have been defeated, only to be brought back to life through something called the “gut-and-amend” process.
“Gut-and-amend just doesn’t even sound nice, does it?” she said. “So they are gutting one bill… the bill has already made it through and it’s here, you just take the guts out, you take the content out, and you stick something else in.”
Conway said, as a member of the minority party, it’s something she’s always on the look-out for.
Whatever does come up, Capitol watchers paint the end of session as a frantic time with lawmakers rushing to get their legislation passed. The Assembly is already on its way. The Senate will join the sprint to the finish when it returns from its summer break next week.