SACRAMENTO — A measure expanding the rights of gays and lesbians in domestic partnerships cleared the Senate on Monday, prompting opponents to call on Gov. Gray Davis to "protect marriage" by vetoing the legislation.
In addition, the Senate passed legislation to curtail what some legislators called predatory lending practices. The Assembly debated a bill to place an "excess profits tax" on electricity companies and voted to restore $98 million to community colleges that had been cut from the state budget.
The flurry of legislative activity came as both houses of the Legislature entered their final week of business for this year--an annual ritual that features elected leaders hustling to meet the deadline for passing new laws.
The domestic partnership bill, AB 25 by Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), is one of the most controversial pieces of legislation to surface this session. It seeks to increase health, legal and unemployment benefits to the more than 16,000 gay, lesbian and elderly opposite-sex couples who have registered as domestic partners in California since a law took effect 21 months ago permitting them to do so.
Sen. Sheila Kuehl, a Santa Monica Democrat, described it as a modest, fair bill that has "a heart."
"It is extremely important in terms of making life a little easier for people who are committed to each other," Kuehl said.
Sen. Ray Haynes, a Republican from Riverside, warned that the measure would result in severe social and legal consequences for Californians.
"This bill creates a legal morass," Haynes said, "that we will be sorting out on the floor of the Legislature for years."
Vote Split on Party Lines
Senate lawmakers split along party lines, with the majority Democrats pushing the measure through on a vote of 23 to 11. It now heads to the Assembly, where lawmakers are expected to sign off on changes made in the Senate before sending it to Davis. Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for the governor, said her boss plans to sign it if it makes it to his desk.
The Campaign for California Families, a nonprofit group that opposes AB 25, has been running television and radio ads calling on Davis to veto the bill. Randy Thomasson, the group's executive director, said he believes the measure undermines Proposition 22, the ballot initiative that state voters approved last year that defined marriage as a heterosexual-only bond.
"Giving marriage rights to people who aren't married cheapens the institution of marriage for our children to see," Thomasson said. Migden said her measure deals with domestic partnerships and has nothing to do with Proposition 22 or marriage.
"There will never be any appeasing Randy Thomasson when it has to do with equity for lesbian and gay citizens," she said.
The measure would allow a partner to adopt a partner's child as a stepparent and would permit a partner to file a wrongful death lawsuit for the death of his or her partner. Although that bill highlighted a busy day in the Legislature, lawmakers were occupied with a host of other bills as well.
The Senate approved a predatory lending measure by Migden that would restrict lenders from approving high-interest loans backed by property unless the borrower could clearly prove the ability to repay it. The Senate approved AB 489, which Davis also supports, on a vote of 22-12.
Sen. Tom McClintock, (R-Thousand Oaks) said the bill will stop people with ambitions of opening small businesses from realizing their dreams by making it impossible for them to secure loans.
"You'll never own that sandwich shop because you'll never prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you can make that sandwich shop pay," he said.
But Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden) said the measure would stop predatory lenders from taking advantage of some of California's most vulnerable residents, including the elderly and people with limited education or who do not speak English.
"We look at this as a statement for the state of California that underprivileged people will not be taken advantage of," Machado said.
Meanwhile, as the Assembly began debating one bill that would impose a first-ever excess-profits tax on power companies, Davis urged the author of a similar measure to back off and not try to get the bill enacted this year.
Republicans Say Companies May Flee
The Assembly was still debating on Monday evening a measure by Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) to impose such a tax. Republicans argued that it would spur power companies to take their business elsewhere and Democrats argued that it would only crack down on flagrant abusers.
Last spring, Davis, a Democrat, repeatedly said he was open to such a tax on price gougers, but did not endorse or oppose the bill. But McLean said pressing ahead with a bill now might jeopardize the sale of $12.5 billion in bonds to repay the state for energy purchases because it might send a negative message to Wall Street.