Hundreds of bills, dozens of fund-raisers set for end of session

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Associated Press

The legislative equivalent of crunch time starts Monday when lawmakers return from a monthlong recess to decide hundreds of issues ranging from skyrocketing electricity rates to more money for bicycle lanes.

In between votes, legislators will sandwich in more than 60 campaign fund-raising events over the next 25 days as they head toward adjournment of their 2000 session on Aug. 31.

The breakfasts, luncheons, cocktail parties and dinners are designed to draw donations from the businesses, professions, labor unions and other special interests that lobby at the Capitol.

“It’s going to be a very interesting few weeks,” said consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield.

Waiting for lawmakers are about 1,000 bills they left behind when they started their recess.

Topping the agenda are measures that would temporarily roll back skyrocketing electricity rates in San Diego, put new controls on the Insurance Department in the wake of the Quackenbush scandal, toughen nursing home regulations and give consumers greater privacy protections.

Also awaiting action are bills to increase workers’ compensation and

unemployment benefits, provide for binding arbitration of police and firefighter contract disputes and require “at-risk” motorists to take behind-the-wheel tests when they renew their drivers’ licenses.

There are also bills to allow convicted defendants to seek DNA testing, provide more roadway bicycle lanes, regulate payday loan companies, allow mobile-home park residents to keep pets and require driver education classes to discuss how to reduce road rage.

Also up for votes are bills that would allow pregnant women to claim up to 10 weeks of state disability benefits and would link approval of new housing projects to the availability of water.

Next week’s Democratic convention in Los Angeles will also cut into

lawmakers’ time, forcing them to work late into evenings and possibly on weekends, said Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys.

Here are descriptions of some of the key issues awaiting legislators:

ELECTRICITY RATES – The San Diego area is the first part of the state to feel the impact of the electric utility deregulation legislation passed in 1996, and consumers aren’t liking what they’re seeing in their electricity bills – increases of 100 percent or more.

Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, says she will offer an amendment to temporarily roll back rates to July 1999 levels to give lawmakers time to decide what to do about deregulation.

“We may need to postpone or put some controls around this deregulation process or slow down the process,” she said.

She expects lawmakers from other parts of California to be sympathetic to a rollback. “We’re going to try to make the case that they’re next, (that) this is going to happen in every area of the state,” she said.

INSURANCE REFORMS – The scandal surrounding former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush has increased the likelihood that lawmakers will impose new consumer-friendly controls on the Insurance Department and future commissioners.

Assemblyman Jack Scott, D-Altadena, has a bill that would limit how the money paid by insurers to settle unfair practice complaints could be used.

The Quackenbush scandal centered around the use of Northridge earthquake settlement funds in ways that benefitted the commissioner politically.

Scott’s bill would require that the money go to policyholders or be used in some other way to make up for the company’s violation.

Several consumer groups are pushing for other changes, including a ban on insurance industry campaign donations to candidates for commissioner.

CONSUMER PRIVACY – A two-house conference committee is trying to draft legislation that would give consumers greater privacy protections.

“The banking, insurance, retail businesses and many online providers want to be able to use information that they collect about people’s personal business for marketing and profiling purposes,” said Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey.

“They don’t want to get permission to use that information. That puts the consumer in the position of having to run around to all sorts of folks they don’t know to say no. It’s just not practical.”

One proposal would enable consumers to sign a uniform privacy disclaimer if they wanted to keep their personal information confidential.

Companies that had established a customer relationship with a consumer would have to remind the consumer at least once a year that he or she could sign the disclaimer.

Consumer Watchdog
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