Brown Ends 2015 With a Whimper: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Landmark bills protecting digital privacy, greening energy use in the state, reining in health insurance abuses and expanding voter registration were among the good proposals signed by Gov. Jerry Brown as the 2015 legislative year drew to a close. Yet, in a year Californians called for bold, progressive action on gas prices, toxics regulation and ratepayer protection against back room dealings with regulated utilities, centrist saddling and tepid reforms dull the shine of those wins for the public. 

The governor signed SB 350, which will increase the amount of energy produced from renewable sources by 2030 and double the energy efficiency of existing buildings. However, the legislation's centerpiece reform, reducing the state's petroleum use by 50% by 2030, was left on the cutting block after the governor's hands-off approach for most of the battle and a failure to challenge Big Oil head on. Bills to protect groundwater from fracking waste, demand transparency from oil companies manipulating the price and supply of oil, and shut down polluting facilities operating for decades without permits never got off the ground.

It's no wonder, considering the people advising Brown and who he's chosen to oversee California's environmental agencies. Governor Brown fired the head of the state Department of Conservation (DOC) and DOC's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) after they warned, against Big Oil's dogma, that fracking would imperil groundwater. Last week he chose oil industry executive Bill Bartling to oversee the industry at DOGGR instead.

His last two appointments to the scandal-plagued Department of Toxics Substances Control have, at best, failed to clean up practices and culture at an agency that has let serial polluters off the hook at the expense of public health, and taxpayers' wallets. He refused to fire former PG&E CEO Michael Peevey from the top post at the Public Utilities Commission, even as the agency was engulfed in scandal over his close ties to his former industry. Not coincidentally, two former PG&E executives, Nancy McFadden and Dana Williamson, are Brown's most trusted advisors.

The big economic boon in the SB 350 legislation is for California’s investor owned utilities and the renewable energy sector, which includes among it energy pirates that have pillaged California before and during the energy crisis of 2000, such as Duke Energy, and billionaires like Warren Buffet, whose PacifiCorp is going to do very well doing the greater good of replacing fossil fuel energy productions.  The investor-owned utilities, and parent companies, will be charging a premium for  renewable energy delivery and transmission, just as many felt threatened by residential rooftop solar proliferation, now disfavored by the utilities' new friends in Sacramento and old amigos at the Peevey-impoverished PUC. Hat tip to Williamson and McFadden. They will no doubt be feted by the PG&Es, SoCal Edisons, and Sempras post-Brown administration.

Here's the Good, Bad and the Ugly of the bills that Governor Brown signed and vetoed this year: 

Ugly - Public Utilities Commission Reform - Led by Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, and Senators Mark Leno and Jerry Hill, lawmakers fought to pass stricter rules for the PUC. The utility commission is facing federal and state investigations into alleged improper back-channel communications with utilities and CPUC regulators related to the deal. Regulators are also under scrutiny for secret communications with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., including over how much to fine PG&E for the 2010 explosion of a natural gas transmission line.

The package of bills would have tightened rules on private communications between utilities and regulator and conflict-of-interest rules as well as limiting the PUC president’s powers. They would also have increased open meeting requirements and created an “inspector general” with independent authority to investigate the CPUC. Brown vetoed all six bills. 

Bad - Foster Care Prescription Use - Brown had a chance to stop the outrageous misuse of psychotropic medication, which has been well documented, on foster youth.  According to the Quality Improvement Project, during fiscal year 2012-13, there were 104,688 pharmacy claim records for 12,025 children who received a paid claim for psychotropic medication. That’s nearly nine prescriptions per foster child in a single year. Despite opposition from various physician groups, and the governor's lackluster budget support, advocates and lawmakers were able to get three bills passed, which Brown signed. All are a good start in stopping the overprescribing. They will create better reporting and communication with counties, give better medical access to nurses overseeing foster youth and identify group homes that show a pattern of abuse. 

Unfortunately, Brown's administration failed to fully fund one of the bills and allowed a fourth, the "linchpin" and that would have given the courts more oversight, to die. Hopefully next session, he'll get behind proposals backing not only more court oversight but also more disclosure of prescribers. 

GoodVoter Registration Reform - Brown signed legislation to automatically register drivers to vote either when get their licenses for the first time or renew. Along with other bills signed, and some in line for next year, the election reform package could turn around California's abysmal voter turnout trend. He also signed legislation that would allow counties to offer conditional voter registration and provisional voting at satellite offices other than on election day; allows an eligible voter who is at least 16 to preregister to vote; and allows elections officials to set up secure drop boxes throughout a community where people can leave vote-by-mail ballots. 

A caveat. One major bill is on deck for next year, SB 450, by Sen. Ben Allen, which would allow counties to change to an all-mailed ballot election and expand the days allowed to cast the ballot. If Brown makes this proposal a priority next year he may keep a good record on voting reform. 

Good - Privacy - The governor obviously doesn't want anyone snooping around his digital communications. California has been leading the country in implementing privacy protections, and this is the latest. The governor signed a bill that forces police to get a warrant to access private electronic communications. He also increased protections against data breaches, voice recognition on connected televisions and license plate recognition systems. 

Good/Bad - Department of Toxic Substances Control Reforms - Brown signed a package of bills to protect the fiscal health of taxpayers in toxic cleanups. The DTSC gets to write off small sums on uncollected bills; gets the right to financial information about the polluter's ability to pay; and now has the power to revoke permits of serial polluters after three serious violations in five years. It all sounds dandy.

But this is not a new problem. The agency is a mess, has been for years, and Brown has refused to install a reform-minded chief. Brown needs to make sure the DTSC uses its new tools to stop polluters from poisoning our environment. He should have done it five years ago; he should do it now. 

Ugly - Transparency - The governor has never particularly liked transparency in government. He signed legislation that increased reporting about the special interests who pay for lawmakers' travel through nonprofits and expanded disclosure requirements for campaign pieces from independent groups, but he vetoed a bill that would have increased reporting on financial disclosure statements for lawmakers and signed a bill that allows lawmakers to skip reporting grants or other behested payments they helped arrange in cases when the source is a government agency. Transparency groups and the FPPC was opposed, but Brown signed it anyway. 

Good - Healthcare - Brown approved legislation requiring rate review for large employee health care plans, and to prevent insurers from placing all of the prescription drugs to treat certain chronic conditions in the highest-cost tier of a drug formulary.

Ugly - Arbitration - The governor vetoed legislation to prohibit employers from forcing their workers to surrender their rights as a condition of employment by signing an arbitration agreement. Employers often include “forced arbitration” as a condition of employment, resulting in workers being fired or not hired if they don’t give up rights to resolve disputes in court.

See below for all the bills we were watching this year. 

Healthcare

Signed 10/06/2015 - SB 238 (Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles): Will establish training, data reporting, and alert systems for prescribing to foster youth; it will identify risky practices; and it will alert counties so that they can act to reduce dangerous prescribing practices. 

Signed 10/06/2015 - SB 319 ( Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose): Strengthens California’s Health Care Program for Children in Foster Care by explicitly giving public health nurses access to the information and authority needed to monitor and oversee thousands of California foster children who are medicated using psychotropic drugs.

Signed 10/06/2015 - SB 484 (Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose): Requires the identification of group homes suspected of using psychotropic medications inappropriately and specifies the factors to be used in pinpointing those facilities. Those group homes identified will be inspected to determine what policies or practices within the facility contribute to the misuse of psychotropic medications.

Signed 10/11/2015 - AB 1073 (Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco): Would require a pharmacist to use professional judgment to provide a patient with directions for use of a prescription that enhance the patient's understanding of those directions, consistent with the prescriber's instructions. The bill would also require a dispenser, excluding a veterinarian, upon the request of a patient or patient's representative, to provide translated directions for use as prescribed. The bill would authorize a dispenser to use translations made available by the California State Board of Pharmacy pursuant to those existing regulations.

Signed 10/06/2015 - AB 1337 (Assemblyman Eric Linder, R-Corona): Current law requires certain medical providers and medical employers to make a patient's records available for inspection and copying by an attorney, or his or her representative, who presents a written authorization. This bill would require a medical provider or attorney, as defined, to provide an electronic copy of a medical record that is maintained electronically upon request . The bill would also require a medical provider to accept a prescribed authorization form once completed and signed by the patient if the medical provider determines that the form is valid. 

Privacy

Signed 10/08/2015 - SB 178 (Sens. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Joel Anderson, R-Alpine): Protects Californians against warrantless government access to private electronic communications such as emails, text messages and GPS data that are stored in the cloud and on smart phones, tablets, laptops and other digital devices. 

Signed 10/06/2015 - AB 964 (by Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Arcadia)Defines encrypted for purposes of existing law that provides the regulation of entities that own or licenses computerized data that includes personal information to disclose a breach of the security of the system or data to any State resident whose unencrypted person information was, or is reasonably believed to have been, acquired by an unauthorized person.

Signed 10/06/2015 - AB 1116 (by the Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection): Would prohibit the use of voice recognition in a connect television without notice.

Signed 10/06/2015 - SB 34 (by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo): Provides protections on the use of data gathered by automated license plate recognition systems .

Signed 10/06/2015 - SB 570 (by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara): Strengthens data breach notification requirements.

Environment

Signed 10/07/2015 - SB 350 (Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles): By 2030, California would have to increase to 50 percent the amount of energy it generates from renewable sources and double the energy efficiency of existing buildings.
 
Signed 10/02/2015 - AB 273 ( by Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee): This bill will increase the interest rate charged on billed but unpaid invoices owed to the DTSC.
 
Signed 10/02/2015 - AB 274 (by Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee): Allows DTSC to cut its losses on low-dollar uncollected projects valued at less than $5,000 and enable DTSC to more expeditiously cut through the backlog of outstanding costs and free up resources to address larger, higher priority cleanup costs.
 
Signed 10/02/2015 - AB 275 (by Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee): Adjusts state's statutes of limitations (SOL) for cost recovery, which will give DTSC more flexibility to pursue more cost recovery cases in state court and have a greater success rate recovering its costs before statutes of limitations expire without putting taxpayer dollars on the line to cover cleanup costs.  
 
Signed 10/02/2015 - AB 276 (by Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee): Gives the authority to DTSC to ask parties to submit pertinent financial information would allow DTSC to identify those potentially responsible parties who genuinely lack the ability to pay for clean-up and no longer require DTSC to first sue these parties to obtain financial information. 
 
Signed 10/02/2015 - AB 1075 (Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas): Closes a loophole that allows repeat violators to continue operating a hazardous waste treatment facility by requiring permit revocation if a facility has three violations over a five year period or if the public health is threatened.
 
Signed 10/08/2015 - AB 1288 (Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego): Grants the Senate Rules Committee and speaker of the Assembly one appointment each to the controversial California Air Resources Board.
 
Insurance

Signed 10/08/2015 - SB 43 (Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina): Would, for an individual or small group health care service plan contract or an individual or small group health insurance policy issued, amended, or renewed on or after January 1, 2017, prohibit limits on habilitative and rehabilitative services from being combined and would define essential health benefits to include the health benefits covered by particular benchmark plans as of the first quarter of 2014, as specified. The bill, for plan years commencing on or after January 1, 2016, would revise the definition of "habilitative services" to conform to federal regulations.

Signed 10/08/2015 - SB 282 (Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina): Current law requires the Department of Managed Health Care and the Department of Insurance to jointly develop a uniform prior authorization form for prescription drug benefits on or before July 1, 2012, and requires, 6 months after the form is developed, every prescribing provider to submit the request to the health care service plan or health insurer using the uniform form, and requires those plans and insurers to accept only the uniform form. This bill would authorize the prescribing provider to additionally use an electronic process developed specifically for transmitting prior authorization information that meets the National Council for Prescription Drug Programs' SCRIPT standard for electronic prior authorization transactions.

Signed 10/11/2015 - SB 546 (Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco): Requires rate review and prior approval of rates for health plans and insurers that sell coverage in the large group market. 

Signed 10/08/2015 - AB 339 (Assemblyman Richard Gordon, D-Los Altos): Would prevent insurers from placing all of the prescription drugs to treat a certain condition in the highest-cost tier of a drug formulary
 
Signed 10/08/2015 - AB 1131 (Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, D-Encino): Would, for life insurance records, authorize additional persons to send records by electronic transmission by providing that an insurer, agent, broker, or any other person licensed by the Department of Insurance may send electronic records. This bill would expand the scope of electronic notice provisions by allowing the above licensees to send any written record by electronic transmission if not specifically excluded and if the licensee meets specified requirements. The bill would also require the commissioner to submit a report.
 
Signed 9/28/2015 - AB 1515 (Committee on Insurance): Current law requires certain insurance disclosures in various circumstances, including, but not limited to, when a life or disability insurance policy or certificate of coverage is first issued or delivered to a new insured or policyholder, when an employer obtains coverage from a multiple employer welfare arrangement, when a claim is up for settlement, and when a vehicle service contract form is offered. This bill , commencing January 1, 2017, would generally require those disclosures to also include the Department of Insurance's Internet Web site. 
 
Signed 10/04/2015 - AB 1163 (Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona): Would prohibit a material change, as defined, made to the terms and conditions of a contract between a health care service plan and a solicitor, or a health insurer and a life agent, from becoming effective until the plan or insurer has delivered to the solicitor or life agent written or electronic notice of the change or changes to the contract, within a specified time period. These provisions would not apply if the material change is agreed to by the plan or insurer and the solicitor or agent or if the change at issue is required pursuant to state or federal law.
 
Vetoed 9/30/2015 - (Veto message) AB 1232 (Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens): Current law prohibits the Insurance Commissioner from denying an insurance agent or broker license to an applicant without an opportunity to be heard. This bill would, if the applicant or permanent licensee is a natural person and requests a hearing, authorize the person, at his or her option, to have the hearing held by either the Office of Administrative Hearings, or an administrative law judge appointed by the commissioner to conduct the hearing. If the natural person does not indicate a preference of forum when requesting that hearing, the bill would authorize the commissioner to refer the matter for hearing to either the Office of Administrative Hearings, or to an administrative law judge appointed by the commissioner to conduct the hearing. 

Elections 

Signed 10/10/2015 - AB 1461 (Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego): Every eligible Californian would be automatically registered to vote through transactions with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Signed 10/10/2015 - SB 439 (Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica): Would allow counties to offer conditional voter registration and provisional voting at satellite offices other than on election day.

Signed 10/10/2015 - AB 1020 (Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles): Current law provides that a person is entitled to register to vote if he or she is a United States citizen, a resident of California, not in prison or on parole for the conviction of a felony, and at least 18 years of age at the time of the next registration. This bill would provide that a person is entitled to preregister to vote in an election if, among other things, that person is at least 16 years of age. 

Signed 10/10/15 - SB 365 (Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills): Would allow elections officials to set up secure drop boxes throughout a community where people can leave vote-by-mail ballots.

Vetoed 10/10/2015 - (Veto message) AB 1301 (Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles): Would establish a state preclearance system. Under this system, if a covered political subdivision, as defined, enacts or seeks to administer a voting-related law, regulation, or policy, as specified, that is different from that in force or effect on the date this act is enacted, the governing body of the covered political subdivision would be required to submit the law, regulation, or policy to the Secretary of State for approval. The bill would require the Secretary of State to approve the law, regulation, or policy only if specified conditions are met. 

Consumer Protections

Signed 10/06/2015SB 501 and SB 641 (Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont): SB 641 targets abusive tactics of debt collectors by giving a consumer the ability to ask a court to set aside default judgments and hear the case on the merits.  SB 501 creates a tiered-garnishment rate to lower the high percentage of income currently taken from low-income workers’ paychecks and to recognize local minimum wage ordinances.  

Vetoed 10/11/2015 - (Veto message) AB 465 (Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina)Prohibits employers from forcing their workers to surrender their rights as a condition of employment by signing an arbitration agreement. Employers often include “forced arbitration” as a condition of employment, resulting in workers being fired or not hired if they don’t give up rights to resolve disputes in court. 

Public Utilities Commission 

Vetoed 10/09/2015 - (veto messageAB 825 (Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood) and (veto message SB 660 (Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco): Appoints an inspector general in the state auditor’s office to oversee the California Public Utilities Commission. Tightens restrictions on communications between commissioners and the utilities they regulate.  

Vetoed 10/10/15 - (Veto Message) AB 1023 (Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood): Requires log of all outside communications by California Public Utilities Commission senior staff and commissioners.
 
Vetoed 10/10/15 - (Veto Message) AB 895 (Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood): Places financial settlements from electricity crisis into fund that benefits ratepayers.
 
Vetoed 10/10/15 - (Veto Message) SB 18 (Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo): Requires the CPUC commissioners to vote before approving a contract for criminal representation, and the bill also requires a 30-day Legislative review. 
 
Vetoed 10/10/15 - (Veto Message) SB 48 (Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo): Would limit the power of the commission’s president, require commissioners and the executive director to report ex parte communications and make it easier to appeal denials for public records.
 
Transparency
 
Vetoed 10/10/15 - (Veto Message) AB 10 (Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale): Would have updated the business, income and other information that politicians have to reveal on annual financial disclosures filed with the state. 
 
Signed 10/10/15 - SB 21 (Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo): Increases reporting about the special interests who pay for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawmaker travel arranged by nonprofits, including where they went. 
 
Signed 10/10/15 - AB 1544 (Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova): Allows lawmakers to skip reporting grants or other behested payments they helped arrange in cases when the source is a government agency. FPPC was opposed.
 
Signed 10/10/15 - AB 990 (Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord): Expands disclosure requirements for campaign pieces from independent groups, who often play a major role in legislative campaigns.

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