Lawmakers OK Minimum Wage Bills;

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Legislators ignore the governor’s warning on automatic increases. The measures are passed amid a flurry of votes cast before deadline.

The Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, CA — The Legislature ignored Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s warning against allowing automatic increases in California’s minimum wage and passed bills to raise the minimum wage by $1 over the next two years and tie future increases to inflation.

The Senate on Thursday passed the same version of legislation that the Assembly passed late Wednesday, setting up a showdown between Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and the Democrats who dominate the Legislature.

The votes were among hundreds cast in the last two days to meet a legislative deadline. The Democratic agenda includes bills to reshape how Californians get cable TV service, further penalize sex offenders and test residents for chemical buildup in their bodies.

Under the minimum wage bills, AB 1835 by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) and SB 1162 by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), the state’s minimum wage — currently $6.75 an hour — would increase by 50 cents in July 2007 and an additional 50 cents in July 2008, then adjust to keep pace with inflation each year starting in 2009.

Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year, and in 2004 he vetoed a bill to raise the minimum wage by $1 without a provision for automatic adjustments.

Last week, the governor said he would seek to raise the minimum wage by $1 an hour through a commission scheduled to meet today.

Democratic leaders said automatic increases would give both workers and employers certainty and ensure that the state’s lowest wage-earners can at least afford food. But Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said lawmakers are determined to find a compromise with Schwarzenegger.

“We want to negotiate something down the middle between the governor’s dollar and our dollar plus indexing,” he said.

“This year we’re going to send the governor a minimum wage bill that he can sign,” Nunez said. “We’re not going to get into a situation where we want to fight so hard to bring certainty to the lives of poor people that in the end they end up getting zero.”

Schwarzenegger has asked a practically defunct state board called the Industrial Welfare Commission to act today to boost the minimum wage by a dollar. But the governor must fill at least four spots on the five-member panel, because the five members were appointed by former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, and terms of four have expired.

Schwarzenegger said Thursday that automatic spending formulas have proved terrible for the state budget and would hurt the private sector as well.

“It doesn’t work,” he said in a news conference about deployment of the California National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border. “Because the economy goes up and down and we cannot make those adjustments that quickly.

“So I will not support anything like that,” the governor said, “but I do support a $1 increase in the minimum wage. I think it is time now.”

Driven by today’s deadline for bills to be passed from their house of origin, the Assembly approved 354 bills Tuesday and Wednesday. Few have sparked more spending on lobbyists and advertising than a measure by Nunez that aims to lower monthly cable television bills.

The bill would make it easier for telephone companies such as AT&T and Verizon to compete with cable companies such as Comcast, Charter and Adelphia. Under AB 2987, phone companies could get a statewide license to provide cable programming rather than negotiate with individual cities and counties to provide service, as cable companies have done.

Nunez’s bill passed the Assembly on a 70-0 vote and now goes to the Senate. The vote was a sign of faith in the speaker, because the bill is far from finalized and the concerns of cable companies, local governments, consumer advocates and others haven’t been fully addressed.

In particular, Nunez told lawmakers before the vote, there aren’t yet adequate safeguards in the legislation to prevent telephone companies from refusing to serve low-income communities. And it’s not clear whether the bill would allow cable operators to break contracts that they signed with cities and counties.

Wary consumer advocates compared the bill to the 1996 electricity deregulation bill that passed the Legislature unanimously — then led to a catastrophic spike in electricity prices years later.

“The end result may be something that both AT&T and Comcast can live with but something that doesn’t guarantee that all customers have equal access to all services,” said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.

The Assembly also passed several bills aimed at helping the state’s 75,000 foster children, including a measure by Assemblyman Bill Maze (R-Visalia) to give a tax break to employers who hire young adults formerly in the state’s child welfare system and another by Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) to set standards for the number of foster children that social workers oversee. Democrats are working to ensure that the budget, due this month, includes enough money to ease that caseload.

Among the 158 bills passed this week by the Senate is a measure increasing penalties against sex offenders, including those who try to lure minors over the Internet and those who possess child pornography.

Democrats crafted the measure, which also extends the parole period for violent molesters to 10 years, as an alternative to Jessica’s Law, a GOP-backed initiative expected to be on the November ballot. Many Democrats say one of the initiative’s major features — a ban on registered sex offenders living within 2,000 feet of schools or parks — could end up clustering offenders in rural areas, because most sections of cities would be off limits.

Republicans backed the Democratic bill, SB 1128 by Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), but said they wanted Jessica’s Law to pass as well.

“But for Jessica’s Law, we would not see this bill,” said Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta).

The Senate also passed the unofficially named “Wal-Mart bill” — SB1414, sponsored by Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) — which requires firms with 10,000 or more workers to spend some of their wages on health insurance or pay into a state fund. The governor vetoed a similar measure last year.

The Senate returned to another measure vetoed by the governor by approving a
bio-monitoring bill aimed at highlighting the presence of toxins in people’s bodies. SB 1379 by Sens. Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) would set up a program to analyze blood, breast milk and other substances from volunteers.

For the third year in a row, the Senate approved on party lines a bill to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Despite the robust national debate over immigration, SB 1160 by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) drew its most muted discussion, with both sides under no illusions that it would escape a veto.

Tuesday’s primary election appeared to contribute to the demise of an effort by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to ask voters to moderate California’s three-strikes law. SB 1642 would have placed a proposition on the ballot to require that most third felonies be serious or violent to warrant life in prison, and allow those now imprisoned to petition for sentence reductions.

The sponsor, Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), never brought the bill to a vote because, she said, she could not persuade many of the senators running for statewide offices this year to support the bill, which was opposed by the state prosecutors’ association.

“I’ve heard every excuse,” Romero said, “but I think a paramount factor is that there is an election on Tuesday.”
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.

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