Assembly vote avoidance helps kill consumer-protection bills

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San Francisco Chronicle

SACRAMENTO — Consumer-protection bills are dying in the Assembly, not from votes against them but because many members in key committees aren’t voting at all.

It’s happening too often to be a coincidence, consumer advocates and some state senators say. Because an abstention or absence is the same as a no vote, the bill is defeated without legislators having to take a stand that would either anger constituents or campaign contributors.

That happened recently to a proposal to restrict the sale of personal financial information by businesses operating in California.

Other consumer-oriented legislation suffered the same fate, including bills that would have limited the reasons an insurance company could refuse to renew a homeowner’s coverage, barred insurers from using credit history to set policy prices, prohibited unsolicited e-mail ads and reregulated the state’s electricity market.

Sen. Jackie Speier, a Daly City Democrat who wrote the financial privacy bill, traces the pattern to the Assembly’s tight term limits, competition for campaign money to move up the political chain and “corporate Democrats.”

“Their whole chemical makeup is about making money so they will be prepared to run for the next office,” Speier said.

Some consumer advocates blame Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, who assigns committee positions.

“A guy like Herb Wesson ought to just come out and fess up to it,” says Harry Snyder, a former West Coast director of Consumers Union who now advises people how to lobby state government. “He’ll do whatever business will tell him to do.”

Wesson did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but his spokeswoman, Patricia Soto, said there was no anti-consumer trend in the Assembly.

She cited bills involving online privacy, telemarketing and the privacy of Social Security numbers, adding that “we are working on others.”

Activists’ complaints merely show the rigidity of liberal Senate Democrats, said Fred Main, the California Chamber of Commerce‘s general counsel.

It’s easier to work with the Assembly on such bills, because it makes bills workable and reasonable, Main said.

Speier’s bill went through numerous revisions and died a variety of deaths over the last three years.

The latest defeat came July 8 when it failed in the Assembly Banking and Finance Committee on a 3-2 vote, four short of the bare majority needed to clear the panel.

Seven committee members didn’t vote.

Financial services and other companies said the bill would have hampered interaction between divisions of the same corporation. Consumer groups estimate industry sources have spent at least $20 million lobbying against the various versions of the bill.

Companies and business groups opposing the measure have spent more than $366,000 on the committee’s 12 members and Wesson since the start of 2001, mostly to lawmakers who didn’t vote for the bill.

Consumer advocates have launched a petition campaign to put a financial privacy initiative on the March 2004 ballot.

The same week as the privacy bill died, Assembly committees killed the following bills:

– Another Speier bill that would have limited the reasons that an insurance company could refuse to renew a homeowner’s coverage. That bill, SB64, died in the Assembly Insurance Committee on a 3-5 vote, with 11 lawmakers failing to vote.

– A bill by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Norwalk, that would have barred insurers from using a customer’s credit history to determine whether to sell or how to price a homeowner’s insurance policy. Consumer advocates say such practices are often flawed and arbitrary and tend to work against the poor. Six committee members didn’t cast a vote on the bill.

– Legislation by Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey, that would have barred unsolicited e-mail advertising. Instead, the Assembly Business and Professions Committee approved a rival measure that was backed by several technology companies. Consumer advocates said it was the weaker of the two. Six Assembly members failed to vote on the bill in committee.

– An electricity re-regulation bill by Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove, that was backed by consumer groups but failed to get a single vote in the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee. Eleven committee members didn’t vote on the bill.

“The Assembly has demonstrated time and time again they will put the interests of financial institutions over the interests of everyday Californians, and it’s frustrating,” says Shelley Curran, a lobbyist for Consumers Union.

Liberals and their labor allies made a strong effort to win more Assembly seats last year by supporting the more progressive candidates in 13 Democratic primaries, winning nine.

But those gains aren’t always reflected in the makeup of Assembly committees. Pro-business Democrats and Republicans continue to dominate the house’s committees that deal with consumer legislation.

That can mean the committees will kill legislation that might have passed the full Assembly, said Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, who was heavily involved in last year’s efforts to elect more liberals.

Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins, who chairs the Banking and Finance Committee and supported Speier’s privacy bill, says the panel does have some “pretty conservative” Democratic members but the committee also approves some consumer legislation.

Wiggins said Speier’s bill would have had the same fate regardless of the campaign contributions. Wiggins said campaign contributions did not influence the outcome of Speier’s bill.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights says the practice of lawmakers failing to vote has become an “epidemic” and that legislators should lose their pay and expense money when they abstain.

The Santa Monica-based consumer group also wants ballot pamphlets to list a legislator’s “not-voting record” and to require that a committee’s analysis of a bill list campaign contributions to committee members from the measure’s opponents and supporters.

The group indicated in a letter to Wesson that it would try to put the requirements on the ballot if lawmakers don’t impose them themselves.

Assemblyman Lou Correa, D-Anaheim, said he abstained from voting on Speier’s bill because it created “winners and losers. You’ve got to work on the issue until you’ve got a win-win situation.”

Correa also didn’t vote on Speier’s homeowners’ insurance bill and the Bowen bill but supported the Escutia bill.

Another lawmaker, Assemblyman Ron Calderon, D-Covina, refused to discuss why he didn’t vote on the Speier, Escutia and Dunn bills.

“I really don’t want to speak with you right now,” he said.
On the Net: Read the bills, SB1, SB12, SB64, SB691 and SB888, at

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