SACRAMENTO — By the narrowest margin possible, the Assembly Consumer Protection Committee Thursday approved a bill by La Habra Assemblyman Ross Johnson to abolish the state Board of Fabric Care, the licensing agency that regulates California dry cleaners.
Two members appointed to the panel only hours earlier by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) were among the four who voted in favor of the bill--prompting a charge by Fabric Care Board Chairman Robert Frederick that the panel "was stacked against us."
Bill sponsor Johnson, who is a Republican, and Assembly members involved in the changes called the charge ridiculous.
"I think the votes were there anyway," said Assemblyman Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), one of those added to the seven-member committee Thursday morning. "Let me just tell you what the Speaker said. He said he had a vacancy on the committee . . . . I didn't even know what bills were up today."
The bill needed four yes votes to advance beyond the committee.
Bill Followed Complaint
Johnson decided to introduce the bill after an Anaheim dry cleaner, Joe Kaska, 76, complained that he was unnecessarily jailed and treated rudely by board agents for an inadvertent licensing violation.
Johnson said he had asked Brown to fill a long-standing vacancy on the committee, which is chaired by Assemblyman Robert Frazee (R-Carlsbad). But Johnson said he had never discussed his bill with Brown.
"I found out on the floor this morning and had no input at all as to who would be appointed," Johnson added.
The vote on Johnson's bill was 4 to 0; two members of the panel chose not to vote and one was absent. The bill must now go to the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. If that committee approves it, it will be considered by the full Assembly.
Meanwhile, state Senate committees have approved two bills by Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) that appear to be at odds with Johnson's: One would expand the agency's authority and the other would change its name to the Board of Dry Cleaning and Fabric Care.
Both Sher and the other new member of the Consumer Protection Committee, Assemblyman Thomas Hannigan of Fairfield, are Democrats.
Slot Open for Weeks
There had been a vacant slot on the committee for several weeks after Assemblywoman Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) resigned, citing a heavy workload with other committee assignments. In addition to filling that vacancy, Brown replaced Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) with Hannigan.
Johnson said he doubts the Speaker gave his bill any thought in making the new appointments.
"I'm just glad to be over this first hurdle," Johnson said.
Opponents of Johnson's abolition attempt said after the committee voted Wednesday that the state Senate might hold out the best hope for the board's survival.
Since the board was established in 1945, there have been five previous attempts to abolish it, including a bill that died in a state Senate committee last year.
Saying the Legislature has never "admitted that it made a mistake" and abolished a licensing agency, Johnson told committee members his bill "provides the opportunity for a historic moment."
Johnson and other critics of the board say it has no useful function that could not be handled more efficiently elsewhere.
Currently, only one other state, Oklahoma, regulates dry cleaners. North Carolina and Florida stopped regulating the dry cleaning industries in their states before the California Board of Fabric Care was created, and New Mexico stopped in 1979. No other state has regulated the industry.
Besides licensing dry cleaning shops and plants, the agency tests and licenses various operators and specialists who work in them; regulates the use, handling and disposal of toxic solvents used in dry cleaning and also mediates consumer complaints.
Fabric Care Board critics, who include consumer groups and the state Department of Consumer Affairs, say the board has handled all those duties poorly over the years and that recent improvements were made just to look good in the face of criticism.