A Bevy of Bills Is Signed;

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Added protections for transgender residents, auto insurance measure are among new laws.

The Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis has signed legislation to bar discrimination against people
who have changed their gender as well as an insurance bill opposed by some consumer advocates.

Those bills are among dozens signed in recent days by Davis as he sifts through the work that the Legislature did before passing a state budget and then going on vacation.

The bills range from the broad to the minuscule; among those he has turned into law are one to stiffen penalties for trespassing on private farmland and another measure that renames “low-performing” schools as “high-priority” schools without doing anything to address those conditions.

Davis signed AB 196 by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) to protect transgender people from job and housing discrimination. Leno said his bill would affect more than 100,000 Californians who behave or dress differently than the gender they had at birth.

Technically, the bill amends the state Fair Employment and Housing Act to add gender to the list of attributes — such as religion, race and ancestry — on which discrimination is banned. It would allow the state to impose a wide range of penalties, from restoration of back pay to civil fines of as much as $150,000.

Three other states have passed similar laws.

“The passage of AB 196 into law maintains California’s role as a leader in social justice,” Leno said.

Republicans had argued that the bill would force landlords and employers to hire people whose transgender behavior they morally oppose. The Campaign for California Families has promised to make the bill signing an issue in the campaign to recall Davis.

“Average people think it’s outrageous to force the sex-change lifestyle upon businesses and Boy Scouts,” Executive Director Randy Thomasson said.

In other action, Mercury Insurance Group of Los Angeles sponsored the insurance bill, SB 841 by Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland). Opposed by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and the state Department of Insurance, it allows companies such as Mercury to lure business from other auto insurance companies by offering discounts to drivers who are already insured. Supporters contend the legislation encourages competition, but opponents argue that insurance companies will make up for the discounts by raising rates on policies for people who are not currently insured.

“The way they’ve worked this out is everybody gets a discount except for the people who have never been insured or have had a lapse in coverage,” said Harvey Rosenfield, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. He vowed to sue to block the new law as a violation of Proposition 103. Voters passed that insurance reform initiative in 1988; one provision bans companies from using the absence of prior auto insurance coverage to determine rates.

The law takes effect immediately and overrides Department of Insurance regulations that allow companies to offer discounts for sustained coverage only to their own customers, not those of competitors.

Rosenfield argued that the bill would increase the number of uninsured drivers in California by making coverage more expensive for those least able to afford it. But that argument held little sway in the Legislature, where both houses passed the bill with a two-thirds majority. Many lawmakers contended that it encourages competition by allowing a driver to scout for the best deal without losing a discount for sustained coverage.

Mercury Insurance Group of Los Angeles has donated more than $1.2 million to politicians, candidates and political action groups since 2001, including $85,000 to Davis.

In his signing message, Davis wrote that the bill “would have the potential to benefit the overwhelming number of California drivers. It will allow a consumer to keep their loyalty discount and shop with their own company or another insurer for an even lower rate.”

Last year, Davis vetoed a similar bill that did not exempt military personnel whose coverage lapses while they are serving out of state. In signing the bill this year, Davis asked Perata to write follow-up legislation to launch a five-year study of whether the new law adversely affects low-income drivers.

Other bills signed by Davis in recent days include:

– AB 924 by Assemblyman Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) boosts the fine for trespassing on private farmland from $10 to $75.

– AB 96 by Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez (D-Norwalk) changes references in state law from “low-performing” schools to “high-priority” schools. Such schools rank 5 or lower on the 1-to-10 scale by which the state ranks all public schools. Bermudez argued that the labeling stigmatizes students.

“Words can make children have a thirst for knowledge,” he said, “or they can hinder their ability to succeed.”

– SB 508 by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) requires car dealers to keep sales contracts records for seven years and make them available to the attorney general if asked. Davis has said the law will help prosecutors investigate dealers who charge excessively high financing rates, particularly to African American and Latino customers.

– AB 78 by Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno) encourages seventh- through 12th-grade teachers to include lessons about the Hmong, Laotian and Vietnamese soldiers who aided U.S. soldiers in conflicts in Vietnam and Laos.

– AB 1083 by Assemblyman Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto) makes it illegal to issue a life insurance policy worth more than $50,000 covering the applicant’s spouse unless the spouse has been notified.

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