Legislature Boils with Bills

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End of the Session Is When Lawmakers and Lobbyists Do Some Arm-Twisting

San Jose Mercury News

SACRAMENTO – With months of policy debate dwindling to mere hours, state lawmakers and lobbyists are furiously wheeling and dealing behind the scenes on last-minute special-interest bills being pushed by everyone from insurance companies to car dealers.

Lawmakers have been working for up to two years to craft state laws, but most of the arm-twisting and compromise will take place in the coming days as politicians and lobbyists try to craft deals before most bills live or die Saturday at midnight.

Between now and then, bills that Californians might have thought had been killed — and even some ideas that have never been debated — will pop up for heated debate.

“The condensed nature of the last week of the session makes lawmakers think they can get away with pushing through anti-poor, anti-consumer bills,” consumer advocate Doug Heller said. “It’s a window of opportunity to pay back their big business contributors.”

Among those making a last-minute play for support is Mercury Insurance, a major state insurance company that has been trying to thwart proposed regulations that would prevent firms from offering special discounts to drivers who have had insurance for years.

Mercury Insurance poured tens of thousands of dollars into lawmaker campaign accounts in the weeks leading up to a key hearing, but the measure was defeated earlier this month amid concerns from consumer groups that the proposal would punish new drivers.

This week, however, state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, gutted a dormant bill to finance prostate cancer research and inserted new language to resurrect the auto insurance issue.

Negotiators have been working behind the scenes to cut a deal and have been trying to win over liberal lawmakers by offering to expand a low-cost auto insurance pilot program now in place in San Francisco and Los Angeles to three new counties if they vote for the Perata bill (SB 689).

On Monday, before the bill passed a key Assembly committee, Perata defended the move and said the issue would still get a fair, public hearing.

“This place is like finals week in college,” he said. “You ultimately don’t end up doing the work that you should have done all along until you’re up against the deadline.”

Perata was also at the center of another last-minute fight over exploitative loans offered to poor Californians. Several cities, including Oakland and Los Angeles, have moved to impose tough regulations on companies that offer so-called predatory loans that often include high fees.

Financial lobbyists are trying to impose a moratorium on local laws aimed at predatory loans in favor of a weaker statewide standard.

When news of the proposal surfaced last week, activists staged a protest at Perata’s office and the idea was quickly shelved.

Along with banks and insurance companies, car dealers have also been working behind the scenes to try to win some legal relief. The companies have been working with state Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove, on a proposal that would rewrite California’s regulations on unfair business practices.

Dunn said some attorneys have been abusing the law by filing class-action lawsuits against car dealers that are in technical violation of the law. Car dealers have been trying to tie their cause to another legal deal being worked out that would give attorneys more time to file wrongful-death lawsuits. But Dunn said that chances of working out a deal this week are dimming.

He conceded that last-minute deals may not be good for democracy, but said they may be an inevitable part of the process.

“There’s no question that the end-of-session antics are a way of circumventing the normal protocols,” Dunn said. “But it seems to be the nature of the beast, and there’s probably little ability to eliminate end-of-session surprises.”


Contact Dion Nissenbaum at [email protected] or (916) 441-4603.

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