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Davis Expected to Sign Bill on Reform of Nursing Homes

Capitol: The measure to strengthen state oversight clears both houses as legislators pass a flurry of proposals near session's end.


SACRAMENTO — A year after similar legislation was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis, the California Legislature on Wednesday passed a multifaceted measure to strengthen oversight of the state's beleaguered nursing homes--this time with Davis' blessing.

Though not as strong as his legislation last year, the bill by Assemblyman Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco) still represents the most sweeping reform of California's nursing homes in decades. The measure cleared both houses and is expected to get Davis' signature.

It was one of numerous weighty pieces of legislation emerging Thursday from the Assembly and Senate, which are entering the whirlwind final days of their two-year lawmaking session.

Other bills included a requirement that schoolteachers pay unions a special service fee for contract negotiations regardless of whether they are members, approval of a University of California study on the economic impacts of slavery and a change in how the Los Angeles County Community College District board is elected.

For years, the state's nursing homes, which now number 1,400 and care for more than 250,000 people, have been plagued by accounts of neglect, abuse, inadequate staffing and generally poor care. A scathing federal report two years ago found that 30% of the homes cause death or serious injury to their residents, and that many of the same problems a state watchdog agency documented 15 years earlier were still present.

The Shelley bill, the result of complex negotiations involving the governor and Republicans and Democrats from both houses of the Legislature, would quadruple the fine for state law violations contributing to a patient's death to $100,000. That is twice the increase that was called for in last year's bill.

"Some facilities might complain that this [$100,000 fine] will put them out of business," Shelley said. "But if you kill someone, then maybe that is not such a bad idea."

The measure, AB 1731, would also improve training of nursing home staffs and increase the state's reimbursement rate for treating elderly patients. Unlike last year's legislation, however, it would not force nursing homes to increase staffing per patient, one of the most important changes sought by seniors' advocates. Davis said in his veto message last year that such a requirement would prove too expensive.

The Assembly also passed labor-backed legislation by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) that would require all public school and community college employees to pay a mandatory "fair share fee" to unions. The fee would apply to anyone who is part of a collective bargaining unit that a union negotiates for, regardless of whether the worker belongs to the union.

Republicans strongly argued against the bill, SB 1960, and even tried to introduce hostile amendments on the Assembly floor, arguing that it was an outrageous ploy by organized labor. But Democrats argued just as loudly that it was unfair for some public employees, who receive the same benefits from labor contracts as union members, to get away with paying nothing.

"There is no such thing as a free lunch," said Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks).

Other significant bills included:

* SB 1737 by Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), which would support a University of California study on the economic consequences of African American slavery. The measure cleared the Assembly with broad bipartisan support, but several Republicans voted against it, prompting Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Los Angeles), who is black, to emotionally declare he could not believe there was any opposition.

* AB 8, a measure by Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar) that would force the Los Angeles County Community College District to establish regional seats rather than electing its members at large. Many of Los Angeles' poorer areas have for years complained that at-large elections have left them with poor representation on the board. Davis vetoed similar legislation last year, but Cardenas said the governor would sign this year's bill, which has broader support.

* AB 1913, also by Cardenas, a compromise measure seeking to reinstate more than $240 million for juvenile crime prevention programs. Davis vetoed a more expansive measure by Cardenas and Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) earlier this year, but has promised to sign the slimmed-down version.

* AB 1331 by Assemblyman Lou Papan (D-Millbrae), which would strike the name of former Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) from the title of every state law that bears his name. Robbins was snared in a wide-ranging corruption case and resigned in 1991. He served 20 months in a federal prison camp.

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