Commentary: Farm Bureau assesses key bills as Legislature recesses
By Rich Matteis
The state Legislature adjourned at the end of last week for a month-long summer recess, but not before taking key votes on water bond legislation and high-speed rail funding. July 6 was also the last day for legislative policy committees to pass legislation. Legislators will return on Aug. 6 to finish the legislative session by Aug. 31, after which most will head off for 24/7 campaigning before the November elections.
This break in legislative activity is a good time to update some of the key issues Farm Bureau has been working on.
The Legislature did pass a state budget by the deadline of June 15 (followed by passage of more than two dozen budget trailer bills), although the budget includes optimistic assumptions about future revenues and presumes that new taxes will be approved by the voters through the governor's November tax initiative. If those taxes don't materialize, $6 billion in additional cuts will be triggered.
Under the budget plan, the California Department of Food and Agriculture took an additional $2.5 million reduction in its General Fund budget, bringing its total General Fund cuts to $33.5 million for this and the next fiscal year (see related story). CDFA is working with agricultural organizations to determine how best to implement the additional cuts.
Recent polls show that approval of the high-speed rail project could hurt chances for passage of the tax initiative. Overall, 31 percent said they would be less likely to support new taxes if the Legislature approved HSR funding. But that is just what legislators did last week.
The Legislature approved Senate Bill 1029, a trailer bill authorizing state budget appropriations to fund the proposed $68 billion HSR project. The bill passed along party lines in the lower house, but in the Senate, four Democrats joined Republicans in opposing it. Nonetheless, it passed with the bare minimum of 21 votes. The bill will enable the state to begin selling $4.5 billion in voter-approved bonds, including $2.6 billion to build the initial phase of the rail line with an annual debt service of $330 million. California Farm Bureau has many concerns with the high-speed rail project, including impacts on farmland and disruption of farming operations (see related story).
In other major action, the Legislature passed legislation to delay a vote on the $11.14 billion water bond. The Farm Bureau supported the measure, Assembly Bill 1422 (Perea, D-Fresno), which will postpone a water bond vote until November 2014 (see related story). While CFBF is on record as supporting the water bond, there was strong consensus among agricultural groups and water suppliers that a vote should be postponed. This year—with the presidential election, other initiatives on the ballot including two major tax measures and the first elections in new districts with candidates selected in a top-two open primary—was not the best time to add one more thing to the ballot.
On the labor front, a heat illness bill, AB 2346 (Butler, D-Los Angeles), moved out of the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, but only after admonitions by the chair and other committee members that the bill is unworkable and needs to be significantly amended. The bill would make substantial changes to current Cal/OSHA heat illness prevention regulations, allow farmworkers to sue employers for violations of the standard, and make farmers and ranchers responsible for non-compliance by farm labor contractors. The bill would require that cool water be available within 10 feet of all employees at all times, and shade within 200 feet of all employees at all times—regardless of the temperature—as well as impose new daily posting requirements. We expect the author to amend the bill as recommended by the committee chair.
A second heat illness bill has also materialized: AB 2676 (Calderon, D-Whittier). The measure requires farm employers or people supervising outdoor work of agricultural employees to provide employees with both continuous, ready access to an area of shade sufficient to allow the body to cool, and to potable water that is suitably cool and available in quantities sufficient to allow employees to drink one quart of water per hour throughout their work shift. Violations of these rules would subject a farm employer to new penalties.
We oppose both of these heat illness bills, as do other agricultural groups. The current law is working and there is no evidence that farm employers should be singled out for additional requirements or penalties. As we have reported in Ag Alert®, incidents of heat illness have declined, and farmers and farm organizations have been very active in heat illness training of farm labor contractors, farmers and farm supervisors for the past four years. Proposed changes in the heat illness rules are unworkable, unwarranted and misdirected.
Proposed changes to overtime rules for agricultural employees are also in the works again. The Senate Labor & Industrial Relations Committee approved AB 1313 (Allen, D-Santa Rosa), which will require agricultural employers to pay one-and-one-half times an employee's regular rate of pay for hours worked after eight hours in any day or 40 hours in a week, a change from the current 10-hour-per-day requirement. CFBF and many other agricultural organizations strongly oppose AB 1313. California is one of only a handful of states that provides premium pay for agricultural employees, and arguably is the most generous. This legislation will unquestionably result in less compensation for agricultural workers, as many farmers reduce hours of work in order to stabilize labor costs. This fact was pointed out by the committee chair before the vote on the measure.
A labor bill CFBF supports, AB 1675 (Bonilla, D-Concord), would authorize the state labor commissioner to issue citations and propose civil monetary penalties to unregistered farm labor contractors, in an effort to discourage irresponsible contractors from offering services. A Farm Bureau-opposed bill to index the state minimum wage to the consumer price index is dead for this year.
Public pension reform is still being discussed under the dome, but approval of a reform package has proved to be elusive due to opposition by public employee unions. Nonetheless, it is expected that the Legislature will continue working on the issue, because many consider real reform necessary in order to gain passage of the governor's tax initiative.
There are dozens of other bills Farm Bureau is working on and this column is too short to mention them all, but Farm Bureau-sponsored legislation to classify shade trailers and utility terrain vehicles as implements of husbandry (AB 2111, Campos, D-San Jose) and another bill to strengthen metal-theft laws (AB 2298, Ma, D-San Francisco) are moving through the process. We also support legislation to increase penalties on recyclers for knowingly taking certain stolen property; to require significant pre-notification of surface landowners of entry by mineral rights owners; to address the nitrate issue; to allow for aggregation of electrical meters on property where renewable energy systems are in place; and to make it easier to communicate with water board members now currently restricted by "ex parte" communication rules.
CFBF continues to work against legislation to restrict the use of dogs for bear hunting; to provide increased fining authority to the Department of Fish and Game, including a bounty hunter provision; to jeopardize prime farmland by facilitating placement of renewable energy projects for cities, counties and other public entities; to establish a state-operated pension system for workers whose employers do not provide a retirement program; and much more.
As you can see, there is never a dull moment at the state Capitol, with many challenges and opportunities. One of those opportunities is before all of you: Most legislators are back in their districts during the break, making this an excellent time to reach out to them and discuss the issues of concern to you. Please take the time during the next month to contact your elected representatives. You can change the debate and the outcomes by letting those who represent you know how you feel. Thank you in advance to those who take the opportunity to do so.
(Rich Matteis is administrator of the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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