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Special Session Fates Unclear As Lawmakers Tout New Priorities

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

California Assembly members greet each other Monday on their first day back at the Capitol for the new year's session.

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

California lawmakers returned to the state Capitol Monday for the second half of their two-year legislative session. They left last year without reaching agreements on transportation or health care funding. And it’s not clear they’re any closer now.

Leaders from both parties say they hope deals can be reached on two issues left unresolved last year despite Gov. Jerry Brown calling special legislative sessions: how to pay for road and highway repairs, and how to restructure a tax on health insurers that funds the state’s Medi-Cal program. But it’s unclear if there’s enough political will to reach those deals in an election year.

Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) says he’s “highly optimistic” that a deal can be reached to find new money for road and highway repairs.

It's “still gonna take a lot of hard work, engagement with the Republicans and the governor,“ De León told Capital Public Radio Monday. “But I believe that we’re on the same page.”

But a deal would likely include higher gas taxes or vehicle fees – and would therefore require GOP support. Senate Minority Leader Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield) says her caucus wants money diverted from transportation funding during the recession to be restored.

“We had $10 billion in unanticipated revenues this year, and it seems time to backfill some of that money.” (0:07)

But that would likely run afoul of the governor, who wants to closely guard new general fund spending.

The push to restructure a tax on health insurers that funds the state’s Medi-Cal program is also in limbo.

“It’s a tough one,” De León says. “It’s a tough one.” 

He says there’s no choice but to reach a deal, since there would otherwise be a billion-dollar budget hole. That will surely require the support of the health insurance industry, whose members have been split over how to proceed.

Beyond transportation and health care funding, Democrats are expected to push proposals to reduce homelessness and gun violence.

De León says he wants to see new efforts to reduce gun violence move forward “sooner rather than later” – with a particular focus on ammunition.

“The reality is, in the state of California, we don’t know who sells ammunition; we don’t know who buys ammunition. We have no regulatory framework that exists,“ he says. “But we have among the strictest gun laws in America. So we have to think about this differently.”

De León also says he plans to propose the nation’s most comprehensive, far-reaching proposal on retirement security.

Republican priorities include new water storage … and changes to California’s criminal justice system after newly-approved policy changes led to the release of more low-level offenders.

Meanwhile, Fuller says the state and federal governments must find new ways to capture storm water.

“El Niño gives us the opportunity to capture some of the water to relieve some of the terrible drought, devastation,“ she says. “But we need to have policies in place so that we don’t just lose it to flooding, but that we capture it.”

Fuller also says California’s criminal justice system needs fixing, pointing to unintended consequences from recent policy changes that have put more low-level offenders out on the streets.

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio