Monday, August 15, 2022

Suspense File: Which Bills did California Lawmakers Kill?

Posted By on Mon, Aug 15, 2022 at 2:27 PM

click to enlarge The state Capitol building. - CALIFORNIA STATE ASSEMBLY
  • California State Assembly
  • The state Capitol building.
On most days, California lawmakers deliberate, debate and decide bills out in public for every Californian to see.

Aug. 11 was not one of those days.

In simultaneous marathon hearings, the appropriations committees in the Assembly and Senate rattled through hundreds of bills in a single discharge of rapid-fire legislating. Many proposals lived to see another day. Among them: Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal for new courts to compel more homeless individuals to seek mental health and substance abuse treatment, and bills to strictly limit the use of solitary confinement in California jails and prisons, allow for the composting of human remains and increase family leave payments for lower-wage workers, though it wouldn’t take effect until 2024.

But many other closely-watched bills came to an unceremonious end, killed in one of Sacramento’s most opaque lawmaking processes. They included a Republican-backed bill that would have capped copays for insulin, a California Medical Association-backed proposal making it easier for doctors to approve procedures and prescriptions without first getting permission from an insurance company, and a bill to allow prosecutors to go after social media companies for knowingly addicting children.

It’s called the suspense file. For months, the appropriations committees, tasked with assessing the fiscal impact of any bill outside the annual budget, gather any legislation with more than a negligible price tag and put it to the side. Then twice a year, after legislative leaders decide which bills live and which die behind closed doors, they announce the results in a single hearing. In most cases, no public votes are taken and no debates are held.

In theory, this arcane procedure allows lawmakers to quickly run through the hundreds of fiscal bills they need to consider by the end of the legislative session, which arrives at the end of this month. Today, the two committees ran through more than 820 bills.

In practice, it’s also a good way for Democratic lawmakers, who hold super-majority power, to kill legislation without having to take a public, and potentially politically difficult, stand. The stakes were especially high Aug. 11. The legislative session ends this month and many lawmakers will either retire or be replaced before the next one begins, making this the last opportunity for some legislators to leave their mark on state policy. Politically, it’s also a tense time: the November general election is less than three months away.

Thus, bills requiring gun owners to buy liability insurance and forcing law enforcement agencies to let the public listen to police radio transmissions were also quietly killed. Who pulled the trigger? The public often has no way to know for sure. We can only count the legislation that succumbed.

In this case, more than 200 were killed, while nearly 600 stayed alive.

Here are some of the other bills that were culled — and the advocacy and interest groups that lobbied on them:

No help for diabetics

Dead for the session: A bill by Sen. Pat Bates, a San Clemente Republican, that would have capped insulin copays at $35 per prescription per month for diabetics. With insulin list prices increasing on average 15 to 17 percent per year since 2012, some state and federal leaders have been pressing for action with little success. A similar effort for privately insured patients was also recently abandoned in the U.S. Senate; Congress is, however, moving forward with a $35-a-month cap for Medicare patients.

“The decision by Assembly Democratic leadership to hold the bill blocked meaningful relief for millions of California residents struggling to pay for the rising cost of insulin. This was a missed opportunity for the California State Legislature to accomplish what Washington, D.C., failed to do,” Bates said in a statement.

Her bill was opposed by the health insurance lobby that has long argued that copay caps do nothing to bring down the actual list price of the drug and would only shift the cost in the form of higher premiums.

Supporters said such a bill could have provided more immediate relief to patients. California has plans to manufacture and distribute its own, more affordable insulin, but that could take years. As of last week, the governor’s office said it has started a “request for information” process with drug manufacturers interested in partnering with the state. In California, 3.2 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes and many of them rely on insulin to survive.

Ana B. Ibarra

A mixed bag for tech regulation

Amid fervent opposition from the tech industry, lawmakers killed a nationally watched bill co-authored by Republican Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham of San Luis Obispo and Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks of Oakland that would have permitted public prosecutors, such as the state attorney general and county district attorneys, to bring civil lawsuits against social media companies for deploying products or features they know will addict kids. The bill had already been amended to remove a clause that would have also allowed parents to file civil lawsuits, but that evidently wasn’t enough to overcome pushback from powerful industry players — some of whom gathered last week with influential lawmakers at a swanky Napa Valley resort.

Cunningham, who called the bill the most important of his career, pitched it as a response to a youth mental health crisis exacerbated by social media companies conducting “an unfettered social experiment on children.” But tech companies countered there were better ways to address kids’ mental health than impinging on online platforms’ First Amendment rights.

“As we’ve said from the start, protecting children online is a priority but must be done responsibly and effectively,” Dylan Hoffman, TechNet’s executive director for California and the Southwest, said in a statement. TechNet, an industry group that represents such companies as Meta (the parent of Facebook and Instagram), Apple and Google, lobbied aggressively against the bill. “We’re glad to see that this bill won’t move forward in its current form. If it had, companies would’ve been punished for simply having a platform that kids can access. It would’ve done little to improve child safety.”

The Twitter application on a digital device in San Dieg on April 25, 2022. Photo by Gregory Bull, AP Photo File
The Twitter application on a digital device in San Dieg on April 25, 2022. Photo by Gregory Bull, AP Photo

Also dead: Another Cunningham bill that would have authorized a study into whether using blockchain technology could help California’s beleaguered unemployment department verify applicant identities and prevent fraud — two things it’s struggled to do amid the pandemic.

However, other closely watched bills to regulate the tech industry advanced with amendments. They would expand kids’ privacy rights online, force social media companies to be more transparent about their terms of service, allow people targeted by violent posts online to seek an order requiring social media companies to remove them, and increase oversight of the budding cryptocurrency industry.

— Emily Hoeven

No leeway for doctors

The doctor’s lobby took an “L” on one of its priority bills for the year. Senate Bill 250 by Sen. Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat, sought to ease administrative hurdles for physicians. More specifically, the bill would have required health insurance plans to exempt certain medical providers from prior authorization rules.

Prior authorization is seen as a cost-control tool that keeps doctors from providing and charging for unnecessary care. Health insurance plans must deem certain medication and procedures as “medically necessary” before a doctor can prescribe or render services.

The California Medical Association argued that reducing red tape would allow doctors to spend more time on patient care and less on paperwork — most importantly, it would help patients access the care and medications they need more quickly. A timely example: one Orange County pediatrician shared on Twitter this morning that one of his premature baby patients can’t access “life-saving medication” because he can’t get a hold of the patient’s insurer.

Health insurance plans, in opposition of the bill, argued that SB 250 could instead lead to over-prescribing and inefficient care, ultimately raising costs.

Ana B. Ibarra

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