Bickering Lawmakers Pass Bills;

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GOP, Democrats both have complaints to make as legislation advances on corporate fraud, handgun safety and garbage collection fees.

The Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — With accusations of sloppy lawmaking echoing through the Legislature, California lawmakers advanced bills Thursday that would crack down on corporate fraud, require safety devices on handguns and raise fees on garbage collection.

Assembly Republicans accused majority Democrats of abusing their leadership power by trying to push through bills without giving the GOP a chance to analyze what was in them.

They protested the last-minute addition of new garbage fees to a bill that never mentioned them until this week. They complained about impromptu committee meetings called without adequate public notice. And to express their unhappiness, some in the GOP took administrative actions intended to slow some legislation down.

The bickering wasn’t only along partisan lines.

State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) had harsh words for fellow party members in the Assembly who helped defeat his bill to ban the burning of agricultural waste in the Central Valley.

The bill, SB 705, is part of a package Florez has authored to cut down on farm-generated air pollution in a region where air problems are among the nation’s most severe. Yet more than a dozen Assembly Democrats, many of whom have been praised by environmental groups for their record, either voted against the measure or didn’t vote at all — a practice lawmakers sometimes use rather than offend constituents or contributors by taking a formal position.

“These urban liberal Democrats have told us they are more interested in the agricultural lobby’s pockets than they are in our kids’ lungs,” Florez said after his bill was defeated on a 31-33 vote. “They are pandering in a serious way… Most of them have 90% voting records with the Sierra Club. It’s sad. I think it’s very sad.”

The charge didn’t help Florez gain friends in the party as he lobbied for more votes, hoping he could get Assembly approval through another floor vote. By the end of the day, he had only picked up four more votes, still six short of what was needed to pass the measure. The bill is expected to come up for another vote in the coming days.

“I think that is insulting to members,” said Assemblyman John Dutra (D-Fremont), who abstained from voting on the bill and called Florez’s comments desperate.

“It is not a tactic that is appreciated or gets a good response,” he said. Dutra said he was following the advice of Assembly Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Barbara Matthews (D-Tracy), a valley representative herself, who warned that there are not adequate disposal facilities to handle the waste farmers would have once burning is outlawed. Dutra and other opponents said they would reconsider it if another pending bill is approved to increase money for
biomass disposal systems.

While the burn ban went up in smoke, Assembly Democrats were able to muster just enough votes to pass a requirement that all new handguns beginning in 2006 be fitted with devices that either warn when a bullet is in the chamber or locks the trigger if the ammunition magazine is not loaded.

The bill, SB 489, was written by Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena), whose son died in an accidental shooting. Supporters of the bill cited a decade-old report from Congress that suggests nearly a quarter of accidental shootings would be prevented by the so-called chamber load indicators. They argued that many gun users are unaware that semiautomatic weapons can still be fired even when their magazine is removed or emptied.

“I grew up hunting and fishing. This is a common-sense issue,” said Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View), who compared the safety devices to seat belts and fire alarms. “If it averts the death of one promising young person, it is worth it.”

Republicans argued fiercely against the bill. They said many of the Democrats supporting it don’t even own guns and are in no position to dictate the best way to handle firearms. Republicans warned that the devices could malfunction and drive up the rate of accidental shootings. On the first vote, the bill was defeated. But when it came up later in the day, it passed 41 to 33 and will now go back to the Senate.

Republicans expressed outrage when a bill that involved licensing boards at the Department of Consumer Affairs was amended to allow a raise in the fees that Californians pay for trash collection service. They accused the Democrats of abusing their power by adding the amendments late in the process and questioned whether such a fee is even legal.

Although taxes require a two-thirds majority vote, Democrats have the ability to raise fees to pay for a specific service or program by a simple majority. The garbage collection fee, which would raise roughly $100 million, is the first of more than $1 billion of such fees expected to be proposed by Democratic lawmakers before the end of next week, when the session is scheduled to end for the year. The bill with the garbage fees is heading to committee and will appear on the floor again next week.

The Senate on Thursday approved and sent to Gov. Gray Davis legislation that would impose fines of up to $1 million against businesses that cover up cases of suspected corporate fraud. The two-bill package also would give extra protection to employee whistle-blowers who call a special hotline to tip off the state attorney general to such cases.

The legislation, sponsored by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, was proposed last year in the aftermath of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, in which top executives were alleged to have engaged in fraud, some of which wiped out millions of dollars in employee retirement programs.

Davis vetoed the bill, asserting that it would impose stiff fines on company executives who “did not actually commit the wrongful act themselves.” But he said he would sign a bill this year that addressed his objections, a demand that supporters of the bill said they believed they had accomplished in the newest plan, SB 523-SB 77.

Unlike previous versions of the bill, in which corporate executives could have been imprisoned for fraud, the newest bills call for levying a maximum $1-million fine against the business entities themselves.

Businesses that opposed last year’s plan abandoned their objections to the bill, which easily cleared the Assembly last month. Without debate, the Senate on Thursday sent it to Davis on a pair of close votes.

Doug Heller, a lobbyist for the foundation, said if it became law, the legislation would be the toughest of its kind in the nation. A major feature of the program would be a proposed 800 hotline to the attorney general’s office, which a whistle-blower could call to report suspected fraud. The bills also would strengthen restrictions against retaliatory actions against whistle-blowers by requiring employers to demonstrate with “clear and convincing” evidence that a disciplinary action taken against the employee was not retaliatory.

Also headed for the governor’s desk was a bill, SB 774, that would make California the 46th state to allow adults to purchase up to 30 syringes without a prescription.

The bill by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) is designed to expand access to sterile syringes to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS, as well as other infectious diseases.

Davis vetoed a similar bill last year, but the new measure has provisions to address his concerns, including a sunset date; an evaluation of the program’s effectiveness by the state Office of AIDS; and a requirement that participating pharmacies offer syringe disposal or provide disposal containers.
Times staff writer Jenifer Warren contributed to this report.

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