A Day in the Capitol

Ever wonder how Audubon California helps get conservation legislation done in Sacramento? Join me on my day in the Capitol finding out.

When I showed up in Sacramento, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Sure, I knew I was attending a hearing in the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, but what did that mean and what did that look like?

Luckily, I spent the day shadowing Audubon California’s Associate Director for Public Policy, Juan Altamirano, who knew the ropes much better than I. When we made our way to the hearing room some half hour early, a crowd had already gathered outside. Some people’s affiliations were clear, with tee shirts for Communities for a Better Environment or the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. Others, like Altamirano, dressed in suit and tie. When the agenda and bill texts were delivered, however, everyone from single-time-visitor to regular began leafing through the thick packet.

Seventeen bills were considered in total, ranging from regulations on short-lived climate pollutants such as methane and black carbon (SB 1383) to legislation for identifying power lines needing enhanced fire mitigation efforts (SB 1463). The bills had been passed in the Senate, and were now moving on to pass through Assembly committees before once again reaching the floor.

On more unanimously supported bills, the committee hearing process can be fairly quick. The hearing started on such a bill authored by Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning (SB 1363), which requires the Ocean Protection Counsel to work with the Coastal Conservancy to create and run an Ocean Acidulation and Hypoxia Reduction Program. After the sponsoring legislator introduces the bill, two two-minute speeches in support are given.

In this case, Altamirano gave one of the testimonies. Audubon California has long been a sponsor of the bill, which recognizes and reinforces the crucial ecological role of eelgrass.

“Ocean acidification is a growing and very concerning issue,” Altamirano said. “SB 1363 attempts to address ocean acidification by investing in eelgrass protection and restoration.”

After the two speeches in support, the Chair of the Committee asks for more voices in support. This prompts movement from the crowd, and a line forms before the microphone. This progression is pretty swift—the supporters will say their name and organization, and perhaps a brief explanation of the reason for their support (technically not allowed).

Although Audubon California was only asked to give one of the testimonial speeches for the day, Altamirano was far from done in the hearing. He joined the line of bill-supporters five more times. Specifically, Audubon California asserted their support for the emissions limit in the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (SB 32); the restriction of ex parte communications with the Coastal Commission (SB 1190); the consideration and regulation of short term pollutants (SB 1383); the integration of working and natural lands’ management into climate strategy (SB1386); and the alteration of management procedures between the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the State Air Resources Board (SB 1387).

Following the proclamations of support, two or maybe three speeches in opposition are heard—and again limited to two minutes. Just as with the supporters of the bill, opposition voices are then allowed to line up and announce their organization’s dissent.

Following the dissent speakers, the committee members are given a chance to ask the bill’s sponsor questions. Sometimes, this chance is waived and the sponsor gives a brief closing statement. The clerk then administrates an oral vote: aye, no or not voting. If a bill receives a majority “aye” votes, it makes it “out” to the next stage: the Appropriations Committee.

On the less unanimous bills, the lines can get long both for opposition and support. The Chair frequently reminded attendees to limit their responses in an effort to save time. The questioning period tends to be longer on these bills as well.

According to Altamirano, this was a longer hearing than most at a full five hours in session. Throughout the day, both hearing attendees and committee members filed in and out. A camera filmed the committee members, broadcasting the action in the overflow area in the hall.

In some ways, this was a typical day at the Capitol. As Altamirano told me, this was the third or fourth time he had heard many of the bills discussed in different committees. In other ways, it was special—not just because of the length of the hearing, but also because of the efforts and passions present in the room. 

While on this particular day it was just Altamirano and me representing Audubon California, at other times—like on Audubon California’s Advocacy Day—volunteers from all over the state come to the Capitol to participate in the democratic process and encourage large-scale conservation. You can also listen to committee hearings and more on the California Assembly website, as well as staying informed on conservation and bird-related bills by reading more on the Audublog.  

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