California leaders push retail theft bill changes over GOP anger. Are all Democrats on board?

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California Democratic leaders this week swatted away Republican criticism over their handling of a series of bills that would tighten penalties on retail theft crimes.

But the Assembly and Senate Public Safety committees on Tuesday did not vote on the controversial amendments to the package, signaling some Democrats may disagree with the changes.

Republicans are unhappy the amendments would void a group of the measures if a ballot initiative changing Proposition 47 passes in November. The 2014 voter-approved proposition reduced some theft and drug crimes to misdemeanors and set a $950 threshold for shoplifting.

Democrats are also proposing another amendment that would cause almost all of the bills to take effect as soon as Gov. Gavin Newsom signs them, potentially undercutting the ballot measure.

The bill package contains 14 bills — seven Assembly bills and seven Senate bills.

The bills, among other changes, would allow prosecutors to combine the value of stolen items to reach the threshold for felony theft. They would also allow judges to hand down longer sentences for people who destroy property and issue restraining orders against those convicted of in-store theft, vandalism or battery offenses.

Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, and Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said in a Tuesday news release they plan to amend 12 of the bills to add the clause enacting the bills immediately. They will add the amendment repealing 11 of the measures if the upcoming initiative passes. The release did not say which bills would contain the amendments.

News of the proposed changes emerged last week, quickly drawing the ire of Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher of Yuba City and Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones of San Diego. On Tuesday, the lawmakers reiterated their concerns about the plan, saying it forces a choice between supporting the bills or the November initiative.

“They are trying to change the narrative in a weak attempt to cover their decision to put politics over public safety,” Jones said at a news conference.

Tuesday morning, the Assembly and Senate Public Safety committees voted to advance some of the 14 measures in the package without the amendments.

Senate Public Safety Chair Aisha Wahab, D-Hayward, said the changes would be added in the future. She declined to discuss why the committee did not vote on the amended bills during the hearing.

The committee’s vice chair, Sen. Kelly Seyarto, R-Murrieta, said Democrats were playing “political games” and using a “political gimmick.”

He supported immediately putting the measures into effect, but not with the plan to repeal them if the initiative passes. Seyarto declined to vote on the bills.

“I don’t think we should (be) taking these really good bills and tying this anchor to it,” he said.

When asked about that criticism after the hearing, Wahab said: “It’s not a political move.”

She noted how the California Retailers Association is backing the measures. But other supporters, and prosecutor and law enforcement groups, said during the Senate hearing they were not in favor of the amendments.

Wahab said the plan was the “best and most-balanced approach” to address the issues quickly.

Assembly Public Safety Chair Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, said his committee “didn’t think it was appropriate” to vote on the amended bills during their hearing.

“I didn’t support them,” McCarty said, when asked whether he disagrees with the amendments. “I support the bills as is. I’m hopeful that the administration, our leadership, interested parties, our (district attorneys), proponents of this initiative — we can come together and come up with a balanced approach that helps California move forward.”

Conflicting retail theft plans

The conflict Tuesday followed strong words from Democratic leaders who said Republican opposition to the proposed changes was hypocritical.

“To our Republican colleagues who oppose our public safety and retail theft solutions, I ask them this: ‘What do you all stand for?”’ Rivas said during a Monday news conference. “What policy in our bipartisan package are you defending here?”

The speaker said in a separate interview he is not engaged in any efforts to convince those backing the initiative to remove it from the ballot.

“My focus is on what I can control,” Rivas said. “My focus is on the work we have here in this building, which is legislatively.”

The push by Democrats comes as retailers and law enforcement groups claim theft has increased in recent years. They lay much of the blame on Proposition 47, although it is unclear whether the measure is actually a factor.

“We must give our law enforcement and local prosecutors the tools they need to address these sophisticated crime rings and hold these enterprises accountable,” said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, during one of the Tuesday hearings.

Legislative leaders insist enacting the ballot measure and the bill package simultaneously would cause conflicts.

On Monday, Rivas cited Assembly Bill 1960 from Assemblywoman Esmeralda Soria, D-Fresno, that would add sentencing enhancements for those who destroy property while committing a felony if the loss exceeds $50,000. He said the initiative contains a similar provision, but it does not include an inflation adjustment.

“They don’t work together,” Rivas said. “It is our responsibility to address this now.”

McGuire called Republicans’ claims “hogwash.”

“They’re trying to slow down some of the most consequential crime bills that this legislature, this state has seen in years,” he said.

The leaders are at odds with the California District Attorneys Association, which is backing the ballot measure.

McGuire and Rivas are racing to get the bills onto Newsom’s desk ahead of a June 27 ballot qualification deadline. Their bills are similar to many elements of the initiative and toughen laws related to retail crimes. The significant difference between the two is a portion of the ballot measure that would increase penalties for someone convicted of shoplifting with two or more prior theft-related convictions.

The Democrats and Newsom oppose changing Proposition 47, saying their bill package is better than the initiative, and they want to keep California from returning to the stringent sentencing regime of the past.

That is despite opposition from certain criminal justice groups that argue the concern over retail theft is overblown and that the bill package could hurt communities of color that have been historically affected by policing and mass incarceration.