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California legislature returns amid homeless, climate crisis

Posted at 4:27 AM, Jan 07, 2020

California lawmakers returned to work on Monday to tackle a daunting list of challenges that include climate concerns and a growing homeless population — problems complicated by election-year politics.

Members of the state Assembly’s Democratic majority kicked off the second year of the two-year legislative session by announcing California’s version of the “Green New Deal” — an ambitious climate proposal that could impose new rules to reduce emissions from cars and trucks..

California is already one of the most aggressive states when it comes to addressing climate change, including a state law that requires all of the state’s energy to come from renewable and zero-carbon sources by 2045.

“We think that’s not fast enough,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a Democrat from Alameda and the primary author of the legislation.

It’s unclear what changes the bill would make. An early version of the legislation sets goals for doubling the availability of affordable housing and public transportation by 2030 while also reducing “disparate standard of living indices for historically impacted communities of color.”

But Bonta said the proposal could also address emission standards for cars and trucks.

“This is not something we just decided to do. This is something science is telling us we have to do,” Bonta said.

Complicating any big legislative proposal this year: A compressed election calendar. Lawmakers now will face primary elections in March instead of June, potentially making it more difficult to vote on politically sensitive issues.

One of the session’s most closely watched bills will be from Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, that would allow for more housing near public transportation by permitting apartment buildings in areas currently zoned for single family homes. Wiener is expected to announce amendments to that proposal on Tuesday.

The bill is in response to the state’s housing crisis, which has contributed to its homelessness problem. Republican Sen. Shannon Grove called the homelessness problem one of the top issues in the state.

“There are a lot of things we need to accomplish this year to make California a more affordable and better place to live and a safer place to live,” she said.

Aside from the environmental proposal, state lawmakers announced Monday that they were introducing bills addressing hot-button topics including the planned power outages that blacked out much of the state last fall.

Democratic Assemblyman Kansen Chu of San Jose said two of his bills will deal with the power outages that utilities used to try to prevent their equipment from sparking wildfires.

The first would require power utility companies to provide information about the shutoffs in languages earmarked for individual ratepayers and help those who rely on electricity for medical needs. The second would give the California Public Utility Commission authority to decide if the shutoffs are necessary and reasonable and if the utility company should have to compensate those affected.

Fellow Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine of San Rafael introduced a bill authorizing the commission to temporarily appoint a public administrator to oversee utilities’ public safety operations.

“About 3 million Californians were left in the dark last October with little to no support from the very same companies they pay monthly,” Chu said in a statement. He separately planned to introduce bills making it easier for people to take time off from work or school to seek mental health treatment.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and 30 lawmakers, all Democrats, backed a bill that would ban the sale of any flavored tobacco product in California stores.

Sen. Jerry Hill of San Bruno withdrew a similar bill last year over what he said were hostile amendments exempting certain products.

Fifty-five California cities and counties already restrict sales of flavored tobacco products, his office said, but there is no is no statewide policy banning their sales.

The Vapor Technology Association said in response to Hill’s last attempt that such bans “only hurt adults trying to quit smoking” and would harm businesses selling the products.

Democrat Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino said she wants to repeal a four-decade-old law requiring teachers and other public school employees to pay for the cost of their substitutes after they have exhausted their paid sick leave. Leyva said the issue came to light last year after a San Francisco Unified School District teacher was required to pay for her substitute teacher while she underwent breast cancer treatment.