Down to the wire

Privacy dies and a budget lives in the Legislature’s final hours

Senator Jackie Speier.

Senator Jackie Speier.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Prospects for a long-awaited deal on the state budget, and the fate of corporate governance bills like the consumer privacy measure Senate Bill 773, added a dramatic tension to the final night of the Legislature’s two-year session last Saturday night.

In a year of myriad corporate scandals, there was much legislation aimed at reforming how business gets done in this state (see “Attack on Big Business,” SN&R, August 29). Some bills had already made it to the governor’s desk, like Senator Martha Escutia’s whistleblower- protection act. A pair of late-introduced business reform measures would be approved on that last night, while another pair would die.

But it was SB 773 that had the spotlight, for a couple key reasons. The measure, which would give consumers a say over how their personal information could be transferred and used for marketing purposes, was enemy number one of an aggressive lobbying and campaign contribution effort by financial institutions. And the bill’s author, Senator Jackie Speier, was a polarizing figure at the end of a three-year quest to close this controversial deal.

All the bill needed to do was get off the Assembly floor, but moderate Democrats were colluding with Republicans to make sure that didn’t happen, at least in its current form. When the measure came up for a vote at 4:30 p.m., it got 33 votes, eight shy of what it needed for passage.

The measure was held “on call,” meaning that legislators could still change their votes. So, with just over seven hours left before the midnight deadline for voting on bills, both sides scrambled to get what they needed. Knowing the measure was extremely popular with voters, opponents sought a way to save face while stopping the Speier bill.

Speier and co-author Assemblyman Joe Nation looked for votes and found a couple, lowering the margin to just six votes. But then the pro-business Democrats made their play, with Assemblyman John Dutra proposing a series of amendments that the bill regulate only third-party information transfers between companies outside of the financial sector. From the perspective of Speier and consumers advocates, the bill was being gutted.

Nation and even Assemblyman Rod Pacheco, the bill’s only Republican supporter, tried to stop the onslaught. But, with 45 votes on his side, Dutra had successfully hijacked the bill. So Speier tried something else. Supportive Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg had her Assembly Bill 2347 before the Senate, and she agreed to do a “gut and amend” with her bill, substituting SB 773’s original language into it.

The Senate approved the measure, sending it back to the Assembly for one last, desperate shot at getting Speier’s language approved. But the votes just weren’t there, and in a bit of cruel irony, the Assembly voted to refer AB 2347 to the Assembly Banking and Finance Committee.

With just hours left in the session, the bill was in the hands of committee Chairman Lou Papan, an adversary of Speier whose committee had gutted the bill during a hearing the previous week. That committee would never convene. Speier had lost. All that remained to be seen was what would happen to the amended SB 773, which was still on call.

Yet by the evening hours, the spotlight had moved to a deal that had been reached on the state budget. Behind closed doors, four Assembly Republicans had signed on to the budget, and by nightfall on that last day, all that remained were the speeches, the posturing and making sure there were no defectors.

“Dean, you doing alright? We got a deal?” Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg asked renegade Democrat Dean Florez on the Assembly floor around 9:30 p.m., looking hard yet warmly into the eyes of Florez, as Republicans at the microphones fired their best doomsday hyperbole at the state budget.

“Yeah, we got a deal,” Florez said sheepishly.

A minute later, Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, last year’s speaker, walked up to Steinberg and delivered one of his trademark bear hugs, both men wearing huge grins, while Republican Charlene Zettel testified that, “This is a budget of, by and for politicians.”

But the deal was done, as was clear by the time Republican leader Dave Cox, who opposed the budget, gave a fatalistic speech and said, “The state of California is a little better off because of [this budget deal].” At 10 p.m., when the Assembly vote counter hit the needed 54 votes on the main budget bill, a cheer of joy and relief erupted in the chamber.

There would still be many budget-related votes over the next few hours, but the spotlight returned to SB 773. At 11 p.m., when the vote on the weakened measure was finally closed in the Assembly, with 49 “aye” votes, SB 773 moved over to the Senate for a concurrence vote. Would Speier assume something was better than nothing and support it, or would she follow through on her pledge to kill it?

There were just a few minutes left before midnight when the bill came up. Speier rose to speak, saying, “I would like to ask my colleagues to kill this measure,” and then offering her top 10 reasons why.

Among her reasons: “Your Blockbuster Video choices get more protection than your most sensitive financial information,” “Tasseled loafers like it, and high heels don’t,” and “Papan voted for it,” drawing big laughs from the crowd.

And her number one reason, offered just before the Senate voted 1-33 to reject the measure: “California consumers deserve better, and we’re going to make sure they get it next year.”