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Lawmakers kill effort to expand California rent control

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — An effort to expand rent control in California died Thursday in a legislative committee after four hours of testimony as hundreds of landlords and renters raucously chanted from the hallway outside.

The bill would have repealed a 1995 law known as the Costa Hawkins Act that prohibits cities from adopting rent control on properties built after that year and enacts other restrictions. Supporters including tenant groups argued more rent control would help renters struggling with ever-rising costs. But opponents, including landlords, argued it would stifle badly needed construction.

That's the view common among economists and the four committee members who opposed the bill. Each expressed skepticism that more rent control was the way to solve California's housing woes.

"I, too, believe the root cause of this crisis is a failure to build enough affordable housing to keep up with our growing population," Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood of Eureka said.

An estimated 1.5 million Californians lack access to affordable housing, and about a third of renters pay more than half of their income for housing. Assemblyman Richard Bloom, a Santa Monica Democrat and the bill's sponsor, said those renters need a break before they're pushed out of their homes altogether.

"Millions of Californians are barely getting by each month," he said, while noting his bill was "not a silver bullet" to end the housing crisis but a critical tool. It would not have mandated cities to adopt rent control policies, but it would have removed a key barrier that prevents rent control on new properties.

Fifteen California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have some form of rent control, but it applies to just a fraction of properties. From 2005 to 2014, median rent increased 25 percent, according to the California Housing Partnership.

Outside the hearing room, hundreds of members of the public shouted chants in favor of their side as they waited for their turn to file into the committee room and share their views.

Amanda Carles of Cotati, California, was one of them. The 71-year-old retired home care worker rents a duplex that she shares with her daughter who has Down syndrome. She used to pay $1,200 a month for it, but the rent went up to $1,400 recently under new ownership. She said the new owners plan to steadily raise it until it reaches the market rate of $1,900, she said, forcing her to consider going back to work to afford the payments.

"I can't afford to move either," she said.

But landlords like Pete Shen said expanding rent control isn't the option.

Shen, from Salinas, wore a yellow T-shirt handed out by the California Apartment Association in protest of the repeal effort. He manages about 50 single-family homes and acknowledged the rent has gone up in recent years. A home that rented for $1,700 three years ago goes for about $2,100 a month now, he said.

Those increases are necessary to keep up with rising maintenance costs, he said. He leases his properties on a month-to-month basis, and if a tenant can't afford the increase he tries to find them a different spot.

Bloom and Assemblyman David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat, said they hope the bill's failure won't end the discussion on rent control going forward. The Legislature passed more than a dozen bills last year aimed at tackling California's high housing costs and lack of affordability, but they could take years to make a difference.

"This will not be the end of the conversation," Chiu said.

Bid to oust judge in Stanford swimmer case moves forward

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Voters on Thursday were a big step closer to getting an opportunity to decide whether to oust a California judge who was severely criticized for his handling of a sexual assault case involving a Stanford University swimmer.

The campaign to remove Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky submitted nearly 100,000 signatures to the county registrar of voters to get the recall on the June 2018 ballot, said Stanford University law professor Michele Dauber, a campaign leader.

The registrar of voters must verify the signatures, but Dauber said the campaign needs just under 59,000 signatures and has plenty to qualify.

"We're here doing this because of the thousands of supporters and volunteers who have donated their time and passion and commitment to the belief that we can make a change to how violence against women is handled in the justice system," Dauber said.

Persky drew criticism after he sentenced former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner in 2016 to six months in jail for sexually assaulting a woman who had passed out behind a trash bin. The judge has said it's his job to consider lighter sentences for first offenders and that he cannot allow public opinion to factor in his decisions.

His attorney, Elizabeth Pipkin, said in a statement that the recall campaign did not comply with the California Constitution, and she looked forward to defending "the independence and discretion of superior court judges in the interest of protecting the rights of all citizens."

Persky had filed a lawsuit arguing that superior court judges are state officers and that any effort to recall them should be filed with state elections officials. A judge ruled against him last year and said the recall campaign could resume.

California's lower court judges serve six-year terms and are elected by county voters. Vacancies are filled by the governor, and recalls of those judges are extremely rare.

Three Los Angeles judges accused of ethics violations were recalled in 1932, according to a history of judicial discipline in the state in Loyola Law School's Law Review.

There have also been 27 attempts to recall California Supreme Court justices, but none qualified for the ballot, according to the secretary of state's office.

Dauber said the county has 30 days to verify the signatures.

Study blames pot farms for poisoning of threatened owls

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Rat poison is contaminating threatened northern spotted owls in California forests, and marijuana farms appear to be to blame, according to a study published Thursday.

The study published in the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology focused on owls in Northern California's Humboldt, Mendocino and Del Norte counties, part of the so-called Emerald Triangle, where remote farms — many in old-growth forests — produce much of the marijuana grown for the U.S. black market.

Researchers from the University of California, Davis, and the California Academy of Sciences tested 10 northern spotted owls found dead in the region. Seven of the owls tested positive for rat poison, used by pot farmers to keep rodents away from their irrigation systems and crops.

The northern spotted owls are listed as threatened under state and federal endangered species acts.

Forty percent of another species, barred owls, also tested positive for the rat poison.

Tissue samples of the barred owls were provided by researchers carrying out a different study, the scientists said. The species, originally from the U.S. East, are considered an invasive species in the Northwest and a threat to spotted owls.

Study lead author Mourad Gabriel earlier carried out similar research linking rat poison used by clandestine marijuana farms to the deaths of fishers, a weasel-like forest predator that has disappeared from half of its former range in the Pacific Northwest.

Gabriel says he's concerned that the poisoning of wildlife will increase now that recreational marijuana is legal in California, potentially driving the proliferation of pot farms.

California officials argue that legalization will allow them to increase oversight and regulation of cannabis farms in fragile forests.

BP pays $102 million settlement for overcharging California

SACRAMENTO (AP) — BP Energy Co. is paying California $102 million to settle claims that it overcharged the state for natural gas between 2003 and 2012, officials announced Thursday.

The company regularly violated contracts to provide gas for numerous state agencies and other governments by exceeding the agreed-upon price cap, then concealed the overcharges by providing false and misleading information, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said.

"At one point, BP employees described the transactions with the state of California, when they were overcharging us, as undertakings with the state that, 'Was allowing them to squeeze gold out of that goose,'" Becerra said. "Well, California just squeezed back — 102 million times we squeezed back."

BP, the largest natural-gas marketer in North America, said the state's allegations "were entirely without merit."

"BP strongly believes it honestly and fairly met its obligations under its contracts with the state," the company said in a statement.

However, to avoid more legal costs and the possibility of an adverse verdict, the company agreed to settle "for an amount well below what the state demanded in its complaint" in the best interest of the company and its shareholders.

The state's lawsuit contended that BP overcharged the state at least $150 million to $300 million, and the state sought triple damages. However, Becerra could not say how much the state was actually overcharged because he and aides said it is under dispute and varies depending on what models are considered.

The investigation began in 2012 with a former employee's complaint that revealed the overcharges, and that whistleblower will get a share of the settlement, Becerra said. The $102 million also will be shared between the state and local agencies that bought natural gas through the state Department of General Services.

California no longer has natural gas contracts with BP, but Becerra and department officials could not say if that was as a result of the fraud investigation.