Democrats will push for immigration, pay, education priorities while GOP strives for relevancy



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SACRAMENTO, California — The first week of the new legislative session provided a preview of the politics that will dominate the year ahead as Democratic leaders push for increased spending on education and social programs while Republicans strive for relevancy after a strong showing in legislative races last month.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, both Democrats, pledged to increase state funding to avoid tuition increases at the University of California even as they demand more transparency and efficiencies from the 10-campus system. Democratic lawmakers also introduced bills that seek to address the wealth gap, from increasing the minimum wage to doubling pay for employees who work the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Democrats plan to use President Barack Obama's recent executive order sparing some immigrants from deportation to push for allowing all immigrants in California, regardless of their legal status, to get health insurance.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, introduced a bill to create a California Office of New Americans, which he hopes will act as a clearinghouse for immigrants to learn about the benefits and legal services to which they are entitled. It also would give them access to civics classes. The bill is SB10.

The Legislature's work matters to all children "regardless of who they are, regardless of where they come from, regardless of the color of their skin or language they speak or where their parents come from, regardless of their legal status," de Leon, D-Los Angeles, said after being sworn in as the Senate leader.

California already allows immigrants in the country illegally to obtain driver's licenses, under a law that takes effect in January, and provides college financial aid for top students who are seeking citizenship, under the state's so-called Dream Act.

The state also provides legal services to unaccompanied minors arriving in California from Central America, responding to a flood of such immigrants earlier this year.

Although they remain in the minority, Republicans are feeling upbeat after blocking Democrats from gaining a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature and recruiting a more diverse field of lawmakers. They have staked their position on college-tuition freezes and will attempt to repeal a greenhouse-gas reduction mandate that they characterize as a hidden gas tax.

Starting Jan. 1, California's cap-and-trade program will apply to companies that produce consumer fuels. The cost of complying with the carbon market, in which companies buy the right to emit greenhouse gases, is expected to increase the price of a gallon of gasoline by 13 cents to 20 cents by 2020, or even as much as 50 cents, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, introduced SB5 while Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, introduced a companion measure, AB23, to exempt transportation fuels from the cap-and-trade rule.

The new class of Republicans also could moderate some of the party's proposals.

Senate Republicans welcomed Janet Nguyen, who is the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to the Legislature. In the Assembly, Ling-Ling Chang became the first Taiwanese-American Republican woman to join the chamber, and Young Kim is the first Korean-American Republican to be elected to the Assembly.

"We believe diversity is a strength, and together we will implement a vison for good jobs, great schools and a more transparent government that works for all Californians," said Assembly Minority Leader Kristen Olsen, R-Modesto.

Lawmakers set a collegial tone in both houses that could yield more bipartisanship. Olsen and Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said lawmakers broadly agree about needing to improve the state's economy. Atkins, the Assembly speaker, said California should have a more predictable regulatory climate while providing improvements in education and transportation to retain businesses.

Reining in tuition hikes also has emerged as a top budget priority.

Atkins has borrowed from Olsen's proposal to adopt zero-based budgeting, starting with the UC. Lara and Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, proposed a constitutional amendment for the 2016 ballot that would give the governor and Legislature more oversight of the UC. And Kim has introduced a bill, AB42, to freeze UC tuition until the governor's temporary tax hikes expire.

Still, Democrats argue that many jobs still pay too little and will push to close the wealth gap. Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, revived his proposal to increase California's minimum wage to $11 in 2016 and $13 in 2017, plus tying the minimum wage to inflation starting in 2019. The bill is SB3.

Some other new laws being introduced:

— A bill by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, would increase financial-disclosure requirements and update forms used by government officials to report their financial interests. The bill, AB10, would require elected officials to be more specific about their interests, disclose business partners, disclose what their businesses do and report the number of times they excuse themselves from a vote because of a conflict of interest.

— A bill by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, seeks to clarify residency requirements for elected officials after former Sen. Rod Wright and Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon were indicted on perjury and voter fraud charges for not living in their districts. The bill, AB31, adds that residency shall only apply to the address of where the lawmakers actually live.

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