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California and the West

Returning Lawmakers Face Many Agendas

Capitol: Democrats will use majority to focus on health issues. Gun control, right to die are among other key areas.


SACRAMENTO — When state lawmakers return Monday to the Capitol from their weeklong spring break, they will face a mountain of legislation: 3,000 bills affecting Californians from cradle to grave, ranging from tax-free diapers to an Oregon-style right to die.

Now that Gov. Gray Davis' high-profile education reform bills have passed in a special legislative session, lawmakers are eager to focus more attention on their own programs.

The Democrats who control the Legislature are turning to a wide variety of health care issues.

"It's absolutely health care," said Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) when asked about the next priorities. "It's going to focus on HMO reform and access to health care" for the poor.

Proposals range from health warnings on cigars to stronger regulation of nursing homes to splitting $562 million in federal tobacco settlement funds.

Democrats say they have not been idle waiting for Davis' education measures to pass; they have been meeting with special interests and constituent groups to line up strategy and support.

"Where's the beef? There's lots of beef," said Assembly Majority Leader Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco). "It just hasn't been put in a bun yet, but it's certainly been sizzling on the stove."

Democrats are pursuing new controls on guns, an era of aggressive public works projects for the 21st century and a $1.5-billion park and open space bond issue with $500 million earmarked for urban parks.

"We have crumbling public works all around us. We're going to try to make up for 30 or more years of neglect," said Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is heading a Davis task force on public works.

Some of the proposals, including health care bills, are dusted-off measures rejected by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. High on that list is a proposal to toughen restrictions on military-style assault weapons that Wilson vetoed.

Although Wilson is gone and the political landscape has changed after two successive GOP governors, Democrats must be mindful of pursuing too many big-ticket programs that could make them vulnerable to being tagged as free-spending liberals.

"We're saying, 'Let's be careful about how we proceed,' " Shelley said. "No one wants to be in the minority [party]" or lose the governor's office, he said.

Indeed, the wish list reflects--to varying degrees--Davis' leanings: improving health care and transportation.

Meanwhile, Republicans, without an ally in the governor's chair, are finding they have little leverage to advance their own programs, including anti-crime legislation. For instance, in the special session on education, Republican-sponsored school bills were sidetracked by Democrats.

"Clearly, on a number of issues, because of Democratic majorities, we are irrelevant," said Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. Still, he said, Republicans can point out the flaws in legislation, as they sought to do on the Davis education package.

And Republicans are not abandoning traditional GOP themes such as tax cuts just because Democrats are in charge. One proposal, for example, would eliminate sales taxes on baby diapers and adult incontinence products.

Some issues lawmakers will address in the coming months:

Health Care

The list of proposed changes is long. Among them will be attempts to expand health insurance for poor families, impose consumer-friendly controls on health maintenance organizations and regulate financially troubled doctor groups.

Proponents foresee a cordial reception by Democrat Davis--as compared to Wilson--but are uncertain which efforts he will accept.

For example, they want intensified regulation of HMOs, whose plans cover most insured Californians but draw heavy criticism for putting cost savings ahead of patient care. Currently, HMO regulation is performed by the Department of Corporations, whose primary mission is oversight of the financial investments industry, not health care.

Critics, including many Democrats, contend that the swiftly changing managed care industry has outrun the department's ability to ensure high quality patient care.

Some consumer advocates favor creating a department devoted strictly to regulating patient care and the financial health of managed care companies. Others favor shifting oversight to existing entities such as the Department of Consumer Affairs or the Department of Health Services.

"What is driving health care in this state is the Wall Street trade analyst, not the Main Street doctor," said state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Daly City). "We've seen some of the windfalls that have accrued to these entrepreneurs."

Speier and Assemblyman Martin Gallegos (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said it is likely that regulation of HMOs will be shifted from the Department of Corporations--but to where is uncertain.

"I don't think where it will be is necessarily as important as who the regulator will be and the attitude of the administration in enforcing existing regulations," Gallegos said.

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