SACRAMENTO, CA — Telephone companies can dive into California’s $5.3 billion-a-year cable TV industry under a law signed Friday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He said the measure, backed by millions of dollars in corporate contributions, will offer consumers better service and lower prices.
Rushing to beat a midnight Saturday bill-signing deadline, the Republican governor joined with Democratic legislative leaders Friday to also back programs lowering the cost of prescription drugs for poor Californians and to test thousands of volunteers for possible toxic contamination.
All three bills could serve as models for other states and the nation, supporters said.
AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. promised more viewing choices and technological advances now that they can seek statewide licenses to deliver Internet and television services to homes and businesses.
The bill frees the telecom giants and cable companies from negotiating with individual communities as they have done until now. Local governments opposed the bill, fearing they will lose money, service to poor areas, public-access programming and free Internet in schools and libraries.
Schwarzenegger sided with telephone companies that spent millions of dollars for television ads, lobbyists and campaign contributions to promote a bill they hope could persuade Congress to adopt a similar national plan.
“Increased competition will translate into better service and lower prices for everyone,” Schwarzenegger said.
The author, Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles, added provisions to his AB2987 that he said will shield communities and the poor from losing local cable contracts.
But Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said there are not nearly enough protections in a bill he called “the biggest gift to any special interest in Sacramento this year.”
Schwarzenegger also signed into law a prescription drug discount program projected to aid about 6 million Californians.
His Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, labeled it an election year flip-flop after Schwarzenegger vetoed six prescription drug bills the last two years.
But Schwarzenegger stood side-by-side in the ornate Capitol Rotunda with a smiling Nunez, who praised the governor in English and Spanish for signing his prescription drug bill, AB2911.
“The governor didn’t think twice about saying, ‘I want to do this, I want to make this happen’,” Nunez said.
For a $10 annual enrollment fee, the program will provide discounts of about 40 percent for name-brand drugs and 60 percent for generics to households that make up to three times the federal poverty level, or about $60,000 a year for a family of four.
Drug companies have until Aug. 1, 2010, to comply voluntarily. If they fail to meet the benchmark discount levels, the state can ask the federal government to remove the company from the preferred drug list used by the state Medi-Cal program, which provides about $4 billion in drugs annually to the poor and elderly.
“This bill will have national implications” as California uses its vast buying power to negotiate bulk rates for prescriptions, said Anthony Wright, executive director of the consumer group Health Access California.
The governor had previously supported programs that required only voluntary compliance from drug companies.
Moments later, Schwarzenegger signed another bill, SB1379, this one sponsored by Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata of Oakland, creating the nation’s first biomonitoring program to measure chemical contamination in the general public.
Dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals such as mercury and the pesticide DDT were found in the bodies of actor Peter Coyote, newspaper columnist Steve Lopez and other prominent Californians during sample tests conducted to promote the bill this year. The new law will make the results of voluntary testing available to public health planners.
He then signed another Perata bill, SB1368, requiring power companies and utilities to find cleaner sources of energy. The bill is particularly aimed at the 20 percent of California power generated by out-of-state coal-fired power plants.
“This was the most productive legislative session in decades,” said Schwarzenegger, who credited the bipartisan cooperation.
The governor was asked what had changed since two years ago, when he called Democratic leaders “girlie men” for delaying the state’s budget.
“I don’t remember that,” joked Nunez, who was again by the governor’s side.
“We are getting along really well. He (Nunez) has taken me out to dinner, he has bought me drinks, tomorrow we are going dancing,” Schwarzenegger said. More seriously, he said that he and Democratic leaders “started looking for things we could agree on.”
However, Schwarzenegger also vetoed dozens of bills, including:
SB1796 by Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, which would have added two members to the state flood board, both selected by the Legislature. It would also have increased eligibility requirements for board members in an effort to increase the body’s professional expertise. Schwarzenegger, who was criticized last year for naming pro-development members to the board, gave no explanation in his veto message, but said he plans to work with lawmakers next year “to develop comprehensive flood management legislation.”
SB1208 by Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, which would have outlawed direct Internet sales of cigarettes to California consumers. Ortiz said direct sales cost the state $35 million in taxes and endanger minors who can order cigarettes illegally. Schwarzenegger said in his veto message that current laws already address both problems.
AB1677 by Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, which would have let public health agencies provide condoms to state prison inmates. Schwarzenegger said in his veto message that the bill conflicts with current laws.
AB2108 by Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, which would have required children under the age of 8 to be restrained in a child seat while traveling in a vehicle. Schwarzenegger said in his veto message that a better approach is to educate parents to comply with existing law, which requires that children younger than 6 years old or less than 60 pounds sit in a booster seat.
In other action, Schwarzenegger signed, without comment, AB1634 by Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield. The bill appropriates $38.8 million from the state budget to reimburse counties for their costs to conduct the special statewide election Schwarzenegger called last November.
On the Net:
Read the bills at http://www.assembly.ca.gov and http://www.sen.ca.gov