SACRAMENTO — As the Legislature's 1990 session draws to a close, Los Angeles legislators and agricultural interests are preparing for a major battle over a proposal to limit the spraying of malathion in residential areas.
In a potential challenge to the governor's emergency powers, Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) is calling for legislation requiring the state to certify that a pesticide is safe before it can be used to eradicate pests in urban neighborhoods.
At the same time, the California Farm Bureau is pushing rival legislation that calls for a more modest health review whenever the state decides to spray malathion--or another pesticide--to eradicate insects such as the Mediterranean fruit fly.
The issue is expected to come to a head in the Legislature this week, and Roberti has pledged to use his power as leader of the Senate to block the measure favored by farmers.
"If they don't agree to some compromise, I would have to oppose it vigorously," Roberti said in an interview. "It would be a battle royal."
The legislation is sure to divide the Senate along urban and rural lines--and pit legislators from Los Angeles County against those representing the rest of the state, Roberti said. It could be a difficult fight, he predicted, because "there's always an anti-L.A. feeling" in the Legislature.
The spraying of malathion over residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Orange counties has been a heated issue in the state Capitol this year as lawmakers from Southern California have fought to halt the spraying.
The latest dispute over whether to require a health review before new spraying can begin was prompted by the discovery that an existing law governing the state's emergency pesticide applications expires at the end of this year.
Under that law, a pest eradication program such as the aerial spraying of malathion is exempt from the normal review process of California's Environmental Quality Act.
When the statute expires, it will leave a significant gap in state law.
The governor will still have the power to declare an emergency in extreme cases and to order malathion spraying to eradicate pests--as Gov. George Deukmejian did this year in efforts to halt the Medfly.
But in the case of an infestation that a governor does not deem to be an emergency, state officials would be required to follow the cumbersome and time-consuming review process of the environmental quality act.
The debate over what kind of procedure to adopt comes against a backdrop of uncertainty over who will be the next governor of California: Republican Pete Wilson or Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
"You can't assume that every governor is going to say every new infestation is an emergency," said Merlin Fagan, a lobbyist for the California Farm Bureau. "With pest infestations, a 180-day delay can allow a small infestation to become a very large infestation. It could be catastrophic."
For months, farmers and environmentalists have been negotiating to come up with a new procedure that would require some form of health review while preventing unnecessary delays that allow pests to multiply.
This effort resulted in a bill by Assemblyman Norm Waters (D-Plymouth) that would require the Department of Health Services to certify that a pesticide application is safe. Under the measure, however, the state could begin spraying malathion or other pesticides within seven days even if the health review is not complete.
The compromise bill passed the Assembly after such groups as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council dropped their opposition.
"The bill in its present form is substantively better than having no law at all and essentially giving total discretion to the new governor," said Assemblyman Lloyd G. Connelly (D-Sacramento), a close ally of the environmental groups. "For the first time, there will be a health review process for eradication programs to begin and continue."
Connelly noted that farming interests are not united behind the bill because they believe it goes too far in restricting future pesticide spraying. "For some parts of the agricultural community it is galling because they have always had the license to do what they want and answer questions later," he said.
In the Senate, however, Waters' bill ran into the opposition of Roberti and other Los Angeles Democrats who argued that it did not do enough to protect urban residents. They succeeded in bottling up the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Farm Bureau, trying to make an end run around the Senate committee, incorporated the legislation into another bill that already has passed the Senate--a measure by Sen. Rose Ann Vuich (D-Dinuba) now awaiting action in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.
But regardless of the farmers' procedural maneuvering, Roberti said he will seek to amend the legislation to require that the state Department of Health Services conduct a health risk assessment before spraying can begin in urban areas.
Under Roberti's plan, the state could begin spraying once the pesticide is certified as safe and then would have 90 days to conduct an in-depth study of the risk to residents who live in the spraying area.
He also called for the addition of a provision requiring farmers to pay one-fourth of the cost of any eradication program.
The Senate leader said he would seek to reach a compromise with farming interests early this week as the Legislature prepares to end a two-year session on Friday. As president pro tem of the Senate, Roberti has substantial influence over whether either the Waters or Vuich measure can reach the Senate floor for a vote.
"I would prefer, personally, no spraying at all," Roberti said. "But I also have to worry about the realities of what can and cannot pass in a house (the Senate) which in the past has been somewhat dominated by agricultural concerns."