Sugary Drinks Bill Illustrates Policy InAction

A murder took place in the California Senate. The perpetrators have not been charged; in fact, they continue to return to the scene of the crime. Fortunately, the victim, Senate Bill 203: The Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Act, may rise again in another form. Only time will tell.

Talking about SB 203 as though it were the casualty on a Law and Order episode sounds overly dramatized, but it’s representative of the language that is actually used to describe a bill that never reaches the governor’s desk. It is killed.

Though most of us were required to learn about the government, and perhaps still sing “Schoolhouse Rock” songs softly to ourselves while washing dishes, I’d wager that the majority of Californians don’t fully comprehend the journey a bill makes to become law.

More importantly, concerned residents should know how to intervene on behalf of bills they support to ensure that these are signed into law, as well as how to oppose bills they disagree with.

Here I continue Synapse’s coverage of health policy issues both at UCSF and in the state at large with a case study in where and how advocacy matters.

About SB 203

Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are defined simply as drinks with added sugar. SSBs are the largest source of added sugar in the U.S. diet. As tasty as they are toxic, SSB ingestion has been linked to a plethora of health problems.

Bills attempting to curb the consumption of SSBs have been gaining (and losing) traction all across the US. If SB 203 had passed, it would have required warning labels to be placed on all SSBs. Ultimately, SB 203’s demise was the direct consequence of the inaction of the four senators who failed to vote on the bill. Appropriately dubbed “The Feeble Four” by May Lynn Tan, a doctoral student in public health at UC Berkeley who was an advocate of SB 203, Senators Hernandez, Roth, Nguyen, and Hall failed in their duty as members of the Committee on Health to take a stance.

Abstaining is only acceptable when a legislator feels they do not have enough information to make a decision. As a members of the Committee on Health, it was not okay to try to save face by abstaining when members of the Feeble Four wanted to vote “Nay” to maintain the endorsement of industry and/or their political party.

It’s especially heart breaking when you consider that the beverage industry aggressively targets children and minority populations, whom several of the Feeble Four represent as parents and members of minority communities. Additionally, a recent study published in Pediatrics found evidence that warning labels on SSBs decreased a parents’ likelihood to buy SSBs for their children. This means the passage of this bill could have had a real impact on vulnerable populations.

However, the Feeble Four are not the only ones to blame; the inaction of Californians (myself included) played a key role in the death of SB 203, despite the fact that labeling SSBs has bipartisan support. Given those facts, here’s a newbie advocate's guide to navigating the complex California legislative process.

How a Bill Becomes a Law (Or Not)

Step 1: An idea is transformed into a bill

Unlike most bills, SB 203 was a reiteration of a previous bill killed in Assembly. However, any individual or group can propose a law to a member of the State Senate or the State Assembly. If the member supports the proposal,, they can agree to author a bill with the help of their Legislative Counsel.

Advocacy Tactic: The opportunity to bring a proposal to a legislator is one of the most influential and impactful ways to voice your concerns (and the law could be named after you).

Step 2: The bill is introduced

Senator Bill Monning (D – Carmel) introduced The SSBs Safety Warning Act to the California State Senate on February 11, 2015. It was given the number SB 203 because it was the 203rd bill introduced to the Senate in the year 2015. If it had been introduced in the Assembly, its number would have begun with Assembly Bill (AB).

Step 3: The newly numbered bill is assigned to a policy committee

SB 203 was read to the Senate for the first time on the day it was introduced. The Senate Rules Committee then assigned SB 203 to a policy committee, the Senate Committee on Health, based on the bill’s topic. A bill that is first introduced to the Assembly will undergo a similar process.

Advocacy Tactic: You can research the committee members who will be voting on your bill of interest and contact them directly to let them know how you feel. This works well if the legislator you contact represents your voting district. Legislators depend on you for re-election.

This strategy is extremely effective when large groups of constituents band together. The only thing worse for a legislator than one unhappy constituent is hundreds of unhappy constituents.

Step 4a: The committee has hearings to decide the fate of the bill

The Committee on Health held a hearing for SB 203 on April 29, 2015. With 4 Ayes, 1 No, and 4 abstains, SB 203 failed to pass the committee. The bill would have died here, but it was put up for reconsideration and consequently revisited by the committee in January.

In general, a policy committee can pass a bill, with or without amendments; kill a bill; or hold the bill. If the committee never votes, the bill dies once the legislature adjourns for break in November.

Advocacy Tactic: You can attend and testify at the hearing scheduled for the bill you are interested in. This could be your last chance to sway committee members.

Step 4b: Any bills up for reconsideration must be acted on and pushed to the floor by the January deadline

Here, we come to the tragic demise of SB 203. The Committee on Health failed to take further action in January and SB 203 died once and for all.

Advocacy Tactic: The intervening period between November and January would have been the perfect time to contact committee members to try and persuade them to vote for SB 203. Only one more “Aye” was needed to pass SB 203 to the next committee.

Though our system of government is complex, it is actually quite accessible – a fact that is often taken for granted. More action on the part of citizens during this critical period could have made a difference in the passage of this bill.

Step 5: The bill goes to the Appropriations (Fiscal) Committee or back to the house floor

If a bill will have some kind of financial impact, it is passed on to the house’s Fiscal Committee to undergo hearings similar to those conducted by the policy committee.

If the bill is not passed onto the Fiscal Committee, it is read to the house floor and voted on by every member of the house.

Advocacy Tactic: If your district legislator was not a member of the policy committee, or they were and voted in a way you disagreed with, now is the time to contact your district legislator to persuade them to take your side.

Step 6: The bill goes to the second house

The process repeats in the second house of the California Legislature.

Advocacy Tactic: The same measures can be taken as listed for each step above.

Step 7: The governor signs the bill into law

If the bill makes it through both houses, it will arrive on the desk of Governor Jerry Brown, where he can sign it into law.

New laws go into effect on the first day of the New Year unless there is a dispute about its legality or enough signatures are collected by an opposing organization for a referendum (repeal) to be placed on the next ballot.

Advocacy Tactic: Now is not the time to relax. Governor Brown has the ability to veto bills that reach his desk and, as stated in Step 7, groups opposing the bill can still kill it.

An advocate’s work is never done!

A final note: The whole legislative process can actually be skipped. If you’ve ever wondered why some bills are labeled Proposition X on the ballot it’s because they started out as initiatives or referendums.

Initiatives are proposals for laws that come directly from concerned citizens.

A referendum is the opposite. Instead of a law proposed by the public, it is a request by the public to remove a law.

Both initiatives and referendums require a certain number of signatures to be placed on the ballot.

The moral of the story of SB 203 is that changing laws is hard, but advocacy can be as simple as writing to your district legislator.

For more details about the California Legislative Process visit http://senate.ca.gov/legislativeprocess. To learn about California Legislation visit http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov. To learn about your district legislators visit http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov.