A new legislative session is nearly upon us, which means lawmaker and their staffs are busy exploring bill ideas for 2015. We conducted an email interview with Ana Molina, chief of staff to state Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, to get a sense of what goes into the development and vetting of a bill idea.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How does a legislator decide legislative priorities for a coming session or year? What kind of factors do you have to weigh to decide what your bill package will include?
First of all, every legislative session is two years. We’re starting a new session in 2015. Our decision for legislative priorities comes in various ways. We are contacted by organizations with bill ideas, or the legislator comes up with ideas based on the needs of his or her district. The former are usually referred to as “sponsored” bills. The latter are “author-sponsored.”
Each legislator can introduce up to 40 bills per session. Sen. Hueso makes it a point to introduce bills, not based on quantity but quality; in other words, we make a decision first on whether they will make a positive difference in California. Oftentimes, a legislator’s interest and experience drive what type of bills he or she introduces. You’ll see a legislator with an M.D. introduce more bills related to the medical industry.
For Sen. Hueso, economic development, public safety, affordable housing and water quality have been some of his priorities. How much prep work do you do before you determine that a particular bill idea is worthy of becoming an actual bill? What process or steps do you take to vet bill ideas?
We try to exhaust all research tools before a decision is made. We talk to experts in the field, organizations dealing with the issue at hand and even those we think might oppose the bill. Our primary goal is to ensure that the new law is necessary and helpful.
In 2011, there were a lot of news stories about domestic violence. A San Diego resident approached us about electronic monitoring for perpetrators coupled with a bracelet for the victim that would alert him/her of when the perpetrator was within a couple hundred feet. Other states had implemented this law. Her daughter had been killed by an ex-boyfriend a few months back. Had this law existed in California, her daughter would have been eligible for this type of court order and would have known that he was lying in wait outside her home when she arrived after a dinner.
Prior to introducing the bill, we talked to domestic violence organizations, shelters, law enforcement, victims groups, public defenders and many others. After much research, Sen. Hueso put the bill across the desk. We were thrilled when the governor signed the bill later that year.
My readers have heard from a lobbyist who said a big part of her job this time of the year is visiting lawmakers’ offices to pitch bill ideas. What do you look for in a proposal from a special interest group? Do you apply any different criteria to a bill idea that comes from outside of your office versus something proposed internally?
All legislative offices are contacted by lobbying groups at one point. There’s a lobbying group for everything you can think of! For us, it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from, as long as it changes things for the better for the people we represent.
Oftentimes, lobbying groups represent the experts in a field who are trying to improve services for the public. For example, we were approached by a lobbyist representing veterans. He wanted us to introduce a bill to invest funding in hiring County Veterans Service Officers (CVSOs) throughout the state. There was a huge backlog in processing benefits for vets in California. We were missing out on millions in federal dollars simply because we didn’t have the staff to process the paperwork. As chair of the Senate Veterans Committee, Sen. Hueso thought this would help local vets tremendously. At the end, we were able to commit the money to hire the CVSOs through the budget process.
Is it awkward telling a group you or your legislator have a good relationship with that you won’t be writing its bill idea?
It’s tough when you have to decline because people don’t usually approach you unless they’re invested in an idea. We try to make it a rule to treat all ideas the same, do the research and finally make a determination as to whether this is good for the public. If we decide it’s not, then we explain the reason. If people know you put in the time, they respect the decision.
Besides developing bill ideas, what other major priorities does an office like yours have this time of the year? There’s a perception that this is a dead time at the state Capitol, but I’ve seen staffers in some offices be just as busy during recess as they are during the session.
In our office, we also use this time to travel to the district and meet with constituents. This gives the capitol staff first-hand knowledge as to the needs of our district. Not all districts are the same. Most capitol staffers are not from the areas their member represents, so it’s helpful when they see for whom they are working hard.
Our legislative director came to San Diego and Imperial Counties recently. She returned to Sacramento with a lot of new bill ideas coming directly from our constituents and a better perspective on what the district priorities are.
Quick News Hits
• State Sen. Ben Hueso (yes, the same guy we were just talking about) was given three years’ probation and ordered to take an alcohol education program following an August arrest in Sacramento. Hueso was charged with two counts of DUI but was allowed to plead to a lower “wet reckless” charge. (Sacramento Bee)
• The Senate announced committee chairmanships. San Diego Sen. Marty Block will lead the committee on Banking and Finance, Sen. Ben Hueso, Energy, Utilities and Communications. (Sacramento Bee)
• The state is making 4,300 minimum custody inmates (who provide menial labor in the prison system) eligible for early release. (L.A. Times)
• New Senate Leader Kevin de Leon closes the Senate’s government oversight office, which was staffed by ex-journalists who investigated problems in state government. (Sacramento Bee)
• Meet the Senate’s new HR director. (Sacramento Bee)
• Critics of a Board of Equalization crackdown on business licenses say the program has problems. (OC Register)
• The latest edition of Cal Facts — a booklet published by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office — offers a statistical breakdown of California and its demographics and finances. (L.A. Times)
• Jessica’s Law, the California ballot measure to require sex offenders to wear GPS monitors, hasn’t worked out as planned. (OC Register)
• Feds give California money for early earthquake detection. (L.A. Times)
Prediction: New Senate Leader Kevin de Leon will continue making changes in the upper house. He’s determined to put his mark on the Senate. But there’s already talk about how long he’ll actually last in the job.