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Sat08182018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

With just a week left until the federal government intends to roll back net neutrality, California’s Senate has stepped into the void by advancing a bill that aims to maintain equal internet access for all its citizens.

This fight over who pays for the internet and how it should be regulated now shifts to the Assembly, and if it passes there, on to Gov. Jerry Brown. If he were so sign it, the state would have the strictest net-neutrality rules in the nation—but could well face a court challenge from internet service providers who contend the state is overstepping its authority.

Democrats have been pushing legislation to require internet companies to play by net-neutrality rules ever since the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality last December. The federal regulations, set to be jettisoned June 11, ensured that internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon give equal access to the web, regardless of payment, data or type of service.

The Senate voted this week along party lines to approve Senate Bill 822 by San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener. The proposed regulation would prevent internet service providers from blocking or slowing down internet traffic for consumers, and also prohibit them from giving priority deals to those who pay for sponsored content.

In recent years, the FCC has found that Comcast and Verizon interfered with access by giving priority to certain users in exchange for compensation.

Internet providers say this sort of regulation will drive up their costs to comply, meaning they would need to charge customers more for internet services. Plus, they note, the proposed California rules would be even more restrictive than the federal rules they aim to replace.

“We need to act at a state level to protect residents, their businesses, our democracy,” Wiener told CALmatters. “When you have internet service providers picking winners or losers on the internet … it impacts everything.”

Everything from startup businesses to brick-and-mortar companies, and from grassroots activism to telemedicine rely on accessing the web, he said, and all users could be impacted when internet providers start manipulating speed, access and prices for consumers.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Kevin De Léon, a Los Angeles Democrat, introduced a similar bill that is currently in the Assembly. De Léon’s bill aims to adopt the key parts of neutrality rules established by the federal government in 2015.

Since the FCC repeal, 28 states, including New Jersey and Vermont, have introduced legislation to protect net neutrality, according to a legislative analysis. But Wiener says his bill is more comprehensive than some others by writing rules beyond that of the federal order established three years ago. For instance, it prohibits internet providers from engaging in zero rating—the practice of incentivizing users to use their products rather than their competitors’ in exchange for free data. It would put the state attorney general in charge of enforcing these rules at an annual cost of $1.8 million.

Supporters of net neutrality argue that consumers should be free to choose and access websites as they want, without interference from a handful of internet providers. They also contend that creating different tiers of service would further the digital divide between those can and cannot afford access to the web.

The bill has broad support from labor groups and companies that rely on the internet. Because 87 percent of rural Americans have one or no option for high-speed internet, removing net-neutrality protections would hurt innovation, small businesses and consumers, said the Internet Association, an organization representing members like Amazon and Netflix.

“We use apps to find marches and to meet other activists, to learn about candidates, and to find a movement where we feel represented,” the California Labor Federation said in a statement. “All of this depends upon unfiltered access to the information we seek. That is all this bill will provide.”

The gatekeepers, on the other hand, don’t want more regulation on their businesses. Moreover, internet-service providers and other opponents say a California net neutrality bill would add to their costs of operating in the state. And because it is costlier to provide service in rural areas, the companies say this regulation would discourage broadband investment in those areas.

“Given that providers have finite budgets, and rural areas are generally the most expensive in which to deploy broadband with challenging payback economics, increased regulatory expenditures necessarily drain the capital available for rural broadband deployment,” Frontier Communications wrote in an opposition letter.

Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill insisted that it would increase the costs on internet providers, who would then simply pass those extra costs on to their California customers. Sen. Patricia Bates, a Laguna Niguel Republican, said the debate for net neutrality should take place at the federal level—not here.

“Internet providers are already held legally accountable by the California attorney general and federal government. Ultimately, all this bill will succeed in doing is opening up our state to legal challenges and costly litigation, which we know is coming if the bill is passed,” Bates said.

If the bill makes it out of the Assembly and becomes law, internet-service providers will have to obey these regulations if they want to operate in the state. But they’re unlikely to go down without a fight.

Said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Van Nuys Democrat who voted for the bill: “We know the second this thing passes, all the various players ... are going to litigate it.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

With a declaration that “public servants best serve the citizenry when they can be candid and honest without reservation in conducting the people’s business,” lawmakers passed the California Whistleblower Protection Act in 1999.

The idea was to protect workers who report misconduct, so that they can blow the whistle on bad actors without losing their jobs. The bill at that time covered workers at state agencies and California’s two public university systems. Lawmakers expanded it in 2010 to cover employees of the state’s courts.

But one group of California government workers has never had whistleblower protection under the law: those who work for the lawmakers themselves. It’s an example of how the Legislature sometimes imposes laws on other people that it doesn’t adhere to itself.

“Lawmakers make laws that affect all of us, including them, and they are softening the blow of regulations for themselves,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who chairs the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

“It feels like double talk.”

The Legislature’s exemption from the Whistleblower Protection Act has garnered attention in recent weeks, as a groundswell of women complaining of pervasive sexual harassment in the state Capitol have publicly called for such protections for legislative employees.

But the whistleblower act isn’t the only area of the law in which the Legislature has demonstrated a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality:

Public records: Want to know whom government officials are meeting with, talking to or emailing? Or how officials were disciplined after an investigation found them culpable of wrongdoing?

State agencies and local governments must release such information—calendars, emails and disciplinary records—under the California Public Records Act, which the Legislature created in 1968. But the same information is nearly impossible to get from state lawmakers, because the Public Records Act does not apply to the Legislature.

Instead, lawmakers are covered by the Legislative Open Records Act, which they passed in 1975 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The act that applies to them is riddled with exceptions, effectively keeping secret many documents that other branches of government must disclose.

“The Legislature has created in many areas a black box where the public can’t see records it would be entitled to see if the public officials at issue weren’t in the Legislature,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization advocating government transparency.

The Legislature’s open-records law allows it to withhold investigations of wrongdoing, even when they led to disciplinary action. It also keeps secret correspondence by lawmakers and their staff, as well as officials’ calendars. The Legislature even refused to give reporters the calendars of two senators undergoing federal prosecution on corruption charges—until media companies sued and won a court order compelling their release.

Another difference: As more government agencies began storing information electronically, the Legislature updated the Public Records Act in 2000 to compel disclosure of digital records. Now state agencies and local governments must provide public records in any format in which they exist. That gives the public access to electronic records, such as databases, in their original digital format.

But the Legislature has never made the same update to its own open-records act. "It was a non-starter," former Assemblyman Kevin Shelley told The Sacramento Bee in 2015.

Open meetings: The idea that government meetings should be open to the public, and designed to welcome public input, has been enshrined in California law for more than 60 years. In 1953, the Legislature passed the open-meeting law that applies to local governments, and in 1967, it passed a similar one for state agencies.

Yet the 1973 law it passed requiring open meetings of the Legislature does not follow the same rules. One major difference: It allows legislators to gather secretly in partisan caucuses.

When contentious issues hit the floor of the Assembly or the Senate, it’s common for one political party or the other to pause proceedings and call for a caucus. Legislators file out of the chamber and into two private meeting rooms where Democrats and Republicans separately gather for conversations that exclude the public and the press. They can hash out disagreements or craft strategy behind closed doors, then return to the chamber to publicly cast their votes.

Local governments, such as city councils, cannot do this. With a few limited exceptions, state law forbids a majority of a local board from gathering privately—precisely because it shuts the public out of the decision-making process.  

“I always remember county supervisors being rankled,” said Peter Detwiler, a retired long-time staffer to the state Senate’s local government committee. “‘You guys put these rules on us and you don’t ever put rules like that on yourself.’”

The same laws also slow down decision-making by local governments and state agencies so that the public can weigh in. Local governments must give at least three days of notice before taking action, while state agencies have to post agendas 10 days in advance.

Legislators, until this year, did not have the same constraints. Though most bills go through a months-long process of public deliberations, a handful of bills each session were written just hours before lawmakers cast votes on them, leaving the public no time to offer their input. Democrats who control the Legislature said the last-minute lawmaking allowed them to put together sensitive compromises that could have blown up with more public scrutiny.

But voters grew frustrated with the secrecy. A Republican donor worked with nonpartisan good-government groups to put Proposition 54 on last year’s ballot, requiring that bills be written and posted online for at least three days before lawmakers can vote on them. The result: Voters put a rule on legislators that the politicians wouldn’t put on themselves.

Out of state travel: With culture wars raging nationally over transgender rights, California’s liberal Legislature last year passed a law banning state-funded travel to states with laws that discriminate against gay or transgender people. Eight states are now on California’s no-go list. Some have laws that could forbid LGBT people from adopting children, or exclude gay students from some school clubs; others have banned anti-discrimination policies that would allow transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their identity.

Yet while legislators have banned state-sponsored travel to Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas, they haven’t stopped traveling to those places themselves. In June, Democratic Sen. Ricardo Lara traveled to Texas for a conference of Latino government officials. Soon after, Democratic Sen. Bob Hertzberg went to Kentucky to study the state’s bail system.

Hertzberg was working on legislation to overhaul bail in California, and “felt it critical to observe first-hand the impact of bail reform in (Kentucky), which has a very well-established system of pretrial release,” his then-chief of staff, Diane Griffiths, wrote in an email.

The travel-ban bill does not exempt lawmakers—a late amendment actually specifies that it also applies to the Legislature—so how are these trips taking place? Lawmakers are getting around the law by using campaign funds, not tax dollars, to pay for them.

The Legislature’s leaders declined to defend the exemptions, but in the past, lawmakers have contended that they are justified because of the unique role of a law-making body and the need to protect legislators’ security. As far as critics are concerned, legislators get away with making exceptions for themselves because they know their hypocrisy won’t attract enough notice to generate mass outrage.

Right now, there’s plenty of attention on the Legislature over its policies for dealing with sexual harassment—and some debate about whether extending the whistleblower act would help remedy the problem.

As is, the Legislature has internal personnel policies that forbid retaliation, and legislative employees are also covered by a different state law that prohibits retaliation for complaining about discrimination or harassment. But the whistleblower act goes even further, laying out a process for workers to confidentially file complaints to the independent state auditor.

Lawmakers will yet again consider a bill giving whistleblower protection to legislative staff when they return to Sacramento next year. GOP Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore plans to re-introduce a measure that has stalled in the past. And—in a nod to some who say her bill wouldn’t apply to employees reporting sexual harassment—she said she’ll add language explicitly stating that it does.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

LOS ANGELES (Reuters)—California legislators have raised fines for traffic infractions to some of the highest in the United States to generate revenue—and the poor are bearing an unfair burden, losing cars and jobs because they cannot pay them, civil rights activists said last week.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area said in a new report that the $490 fine for a red-light ticket in California is three times the national average. The cost is even higher if motorists want to attend traffic school in lieu of a conviction or are late paying.

“Our state is raising money off the backs of California families to balance the budget for special projects, and it’s using traffic tickets as a revenue generator instead of to protect safety, instead of to do justice,” said Elisa Della-Piana, the group’s legal director.

The report comes as lawmakers in some states and local jurisdictions have begun to recognize the implications of high traffic fines on the poor and unemployed, especially in minority communities.

Failure to pay a fine on time can lead to a motorist to lose one’s driver license and car, suffer further financial problems—and even wind up in jail.

“Studies show 78 percent of Californians drive to work, and a very high percentage need to have a license to have a job,” Della-Piana said. “If you can’t afford to pay $500 this month for a traffic ticket, that’s also saying to many families, ‘You lose your household income.’”

California lawmakers have begun to take baby steps to address the problem, Della-Piana said, with Gov. Jerry Brown lately vetoing new attempts by state legislators to raise fines or tack on new fees to traffic tickets, as they grapple with deep budget deficits brought on in part by mushrooming public employee pension obligations.

Brown, a Democrat, has also said in his latest budget proposal that the state should not be suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay a ticket.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles, has introduced legislation that would reduce fines based on a motorist’s ability to pay.

Della-Piana said California should next stop arresting motorists who cannot afford to pay their tickets. Black people are statistically more likely to be jailed for such offenses, according to the report.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Published in Local Issues