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Earlier this year, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez held an informational hearing with the provocative title “Establishing the Evidence Based Value of Women’s Breasts in Workers’ Compensation.”
In truth, Gonzalez knows everything she needs to about the issue. The event was just an opening salvo in a bid to revive legislation, AB 305, which Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed last year.
“I knew I wanted to do this hearing as soon as I read the veto message,” said Gonzalez of the bill that would increase the benefit amount for mastectomies, among other gender-related changes. “I don’t like to give up things easily.”
Gonzalez isn’t alone in her tenacity. Bringing failed legislation back year after year isn’t uncommon, but it takes a good strategy to do it successfully. Legislators say it often involves a tricky mix of persistence, flexibility and personality.
“It’s challenging,” said Gonzalez.
One of the toughest setbacks to overcome is exactly what she is facing — a veto by the governor.
Like Gonzalez, some legislators take the head-on approach and bring the same measure back in its original form, or close to it, with the intent of changing the governor’s mind.
That’s the case for Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, who had a measure, AB 702, vetoed last year that would have changed the rules for how homeless people can use hotel vouchers. Current law provides 16 days of coverage, but they must be consecutive. AB 702 would have allowed the stay to be broken up. The bill passed both houses but didn’t make it past the governor. Maienschein is undeterred.
“I’m bringing it again,” he said. “I don’t want to give up on it … I think it’s important and I want to see it pass.”
While he is pushing the bill back in the same form, he’s taking a softer approach than Gonzalez with the governor’s office, seeking to work one on one with staff to address their opposition, which centers on whether the measure would have additional costs attached to it.
“I know that Gov. Brown is reasonable … I know his staff is reasonable and I know that they are good at listening. So I feel confident that having a further opportunity to explain” will make a difference,” he said.
Other legislators approach a governor’s veto even more cautiously. Sen. Pat Bates had SB 722, which would have made it a felony for a sex offender on parole to remove his or her GPS monitoring device, vetoed in 2015. Brown vetoed it along with eight others, saying the measure “creates a new crime”… by finding “a novel way to characterize and criminalize conduct that is already proscribed..”
Bates said she wasn’t surprised.
“Public safety is one of the most difficult areas when you are in the minority party and you want to introduce bills,” she said, pointing out the governor vetoed almost all bills that had potential to add to the prison population.
For that reason, she decided to hold off on reintroducing the idea until 2017, she said, when she hopes “we have some new information.”
That is “the respectful way to do it,” she said. “It is a process that we are all part of and I think it certainly is a learning process in terms of strategy.”
Somewhere in between stick to your guns and try again later is the path most taken – modification based on lessons learned.
When Assemblywoman Shirley Weber had her bill on reporting crimes on campus, AB 340, vetoed last year, she decided to bring it back “but with some changes,” said her legislative director, Crystal Quezada. This year, it’s AB 1653, and has a new provision that directly speaks to the veto message by instructing the Department of Justice to provide guidance on the reporting.
“Most of the time the governor doesn’t like to sign bills that are only for reporting information,” said Quezada. “The way he was interpreting (AB 340) was that it was just another reporting bill and then nobody does anything with that information.”
So Weber’s team added language to the bill requiring the attorney general to provide guidance to campuses on conforming to existing federal laws about reporting crimes.
“We have to strengthen it,” said Quezada. “In order to convince the governor that it’s not just reporting but providing oversight and accountability and compliance.”
Often bills run into trouble long before they come under the governor’s pen. Just getting them out of the many committees that review them in early stages can be a challenge.
Sen. Marty Block learned that a few years ago with SB 850. That measure, which eventually became law and allows community colleges to offer four-year degrees, hit unexpected opposition early on from both the California State University System and the California Nurses Association, risking its chances of ever making it to a floor vote.
“The first time we ran the bill I think I was a bit naive and it just seemed like absolutely a good idea to me,” said Block. “We got the support of community colleges up and down the state and we just figured it would sail through, and then when we brought it up, in some committees we found opposition.”
CSU was concerned the bill would create competition for them, and CNA worried that more four-year nursing degrees could negatively impact its members, many of whom hold two-year degrees.
Rather than see the billed killed, Block chose to pull it himself.
“If you’re pretty sure a bill is doomed to fail today and you’re pretty sure it’s likely to pass tomorrow, you’re better off pulling it,” he said.
“You don’t go forward with a bill if you think it’s going to get no votes. … We don’t want people to worry about consistency and vote no again.”
Block did what most good legislators do when they have a measure they care about – personally work the bill.
Legislators say that one of the keys to shepherding their ideas through Sacramento’s byzantine hallways is to know their colleagues and take the time to explain the thinking behind the written words.
“I make it a real point to meet with my colleagues and explain them and meet with the governor’s office. If anyone has questions, I will go sit down with them and talk with them and take as much time as it takes to explain it,” said Maienschein.
Bates said that kind of face time doesn’t just help convince her colleagues, it gives her insight into their thinking and can help troubleshoot problems before they surface in committees.
“Frankly, many times that may help you develop an amendment,” she said, pointing out that finessing “a word or two” can sometimes be all it takes to overcome dissent.
After pulling his community college bill, Block said he found by talking to colleagues that he might have better luck with the legislation by simply changing the message. Rather than focusing on education, he made it a business discussion.
“Some of the members cared about education but they were much more focused on business and economy and they didn’t see the tie,” he said. “It became clear to me that I needed to make the tie … we didn’t approach it as an education bill, we approached it as a workforce development bill and the first supporters we got to back the bill were chambers of commerce up and down the state.”
He also worked to address the concerns of CSU and the nurses, amending the bill so that the community college degrees would not include nursing or repeat degrees that CSU offered.
“Now it became a bill that wasn’t likely to fail,” said Block. While it didn’t go as far as his original proposal, Block said it got “the camel’s nose under the tent.” Currently, two community colleges in the San Diego area are offering four-year degrees, and more are in pilot projects across the state.
While legislators each have their own style and tactics when it comes to keeping their ideas in play, they all agree that it takes determination – the willingness to keep at it no matter how many times it fails.
“I … have no shame,” said Gonzalez. “If I really believe in something, I’m going to give people a second shot to think about it.”