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Age Bias Shield, Gun Control OKd

Legislature: Senate approves bills to restore protection for older workers, impose safety tests for cheap guns and place a package of highway reconstruction bonds on ballot.


SACRAMENTO — In an unusual burst of energy, the state Senate voted Monday to crack down on "unsafe" handguns known as Saturday night specials and to restore anti-discrimination protections for older workers.

The upper house also easily approved a bill that will ask voters to approve a record $16 billion in bonds to pay for improving California's aging highways and transportation systems.

The flurry of activity contrasted sharply to the Senate's leisurely pace during the past four months.

In quick order, the Senate approved and sent to the Assembly for expected favorable action:

* A bill, SB 260, by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) aimed at nullifying a state appeals court ruling in which a 49-year-old accountant at Loral Aerospace in Newport Beach was laid off in favor of keeping younger and less expensive employees to save the company money. The vote was 24 to 12.

* A gun control bill, SB 15, by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) that would require pistols and revolvers to pass certain consumer safety tests before they could be made, imported or sold in California. Supporters said the measure would help rid the marketplace of cheap handguns, which presumably would fail safety testing. The vote was 25 to 15.

* The $16-billion transportation bond, SB 315, by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) that would help pay for repair and rehabilitation of old roads and construction of new highways, rail and other modes of transportation. Final shape of the bill is expected to be negotiated by a Senate-Assembly conference committee. The vote was 32 to 8.

For the Senate, it was the third time in two years that it approved legislation aimed at overturning a 1997 opinion by the 4th District Court of Appeal in an age discrimination case brought by Michael Marks, an accountant in Loral's corporate finance office who lost his job in a 1992 downsizing.

The court said employers--for economic reasons--may legally prefer lower paid workers over higher paid employees, "even if the preference falls disproportionately on older, generally higher paid workers."

The state Supreme Court let the ruling stand.

"The bottom line in California is not always the right line," Escutia told the Senate on Monday. She noted that it long has been illegal to practice age discrimination.

"We should not treat age [discrimination] any differently than we treat racial discrimination and gender discrimination," Escutia said.

Opponents charged that the bill, sponsored by organized labor and the American Assn. of Retired Persons, would be an invitation for laid off workers to sue employers.

"The threat of litigation alone drives up the costs of employers," GOP floor leader Ross Johnson of Irvine said.

The bill would declare the Legislature's "rejection" of the opinion and proclaim that it "does not affect existing law in any way."

Former Gov. Pete Wilson twice vetoed similar 1998 bills by Escutia and former Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco).

Wilson also vetoed similar versions of Polanco's handgun safety bill in 1997 and 1998. But Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, during last year's gubernatorial campaign, said he would have signed it. Polanco said he has "great optimism" that Davis will sign it this year.

The bill is designed to crack down on the availability of inexpensive, easily hidden "junk" handguns made by several Southern California companies, whose products, police say, disproportionately end up in the hands of criminals.

Unlike earlier versions, the latest bill does not attempt to define an illegal gun by its short barrel length or small profile. Instead, it would require pistols and revolvers to have a functional safety mechanism, fire 600 rounds without a significant malfunction and be able to fall about four feet onto a slab of concrete without firing.

Earlier versions of the bill cast such a wide net that critics said it would have snarled both "junk" guns and name brand firearms that cost hundreds of dollars.

The Polanco bill would outlaw, effective Jan. 1, 2001, any handgun that failed to meet the safety tests supervised by the state Department of Justice.

During debate on the transportation bonds, Burton conceded that the final form of his bill would be negotiated later as other competing bond issues and alternative forms of financing are proposed.

But he and others agreed that Californians are angry and tired of worsening congestion and are demanding that the Legislature provide relief quickly. The bonds would be submitted to the voters in blocks of $4 billion each over the next four general elections.

"We are going to have to step up to the plate and do something," Burton said.

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