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Bus Security Measure Defeated

Assembly: Democrats on transportation panel abstain from voting on bill opposed by union.

June 30, 2002|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Assembly Democrats last week scuttled legislation that sought to prevent violent felons from continuing to drive school buses--a measure strongly opposed by a school employees union.

Applicants for bus driver positions are rigorously screened for prior felony convictions under a law passed in response to the 1997 murder of a Sacramento-area student by a janitor who was on probation for manslaughter.

But bus drivers already on the job were not covered under the 1997 law as part of a concession to organized labor. Consequently, they can renew their permits and continue to work for schools without undergoing more thorough criminal checks.

Legislation by state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) that would have required the Department of Motor Vehicles to revoke the school bus permit of anyone convicted of a violent crime cleared the Senate last month on a unanimous vote with bipartisan support. But the bill, SB 1725, died Monday in the Assembly Transportation Committee when all Democrats on the panel abstained from voting.

"I walked into a buzz saw, to my surprise," Morrow said in an interview. "Not voting is as good as a no vote, in terms of results."

Leading the charge against the bill was the California School Employees Assn., which represents bus workers.

David Low, a lobbyist for the group, said the measure would have penalized workers who for years have been performing their duties without incident, based on brushes with the law that might have occurred decades earlier. He cited the example of one bus driver, a former minister who had been convicted of a felony in the South that stemmed from involvement in the civil rights movement.

"You can't fire everyone you've ever hired because they stole a bicycle when they were 18 years old," Low said. "We think the public is very well protected, and that it is patently unfair to go back in a person's history forever to deal with something [employers] knew when they hired them."

Most schools have been conducting thorough background checks on bus drivers for years and are aware of any criminal records, he said.

In attempting to pass the measure, Morrow was walking a fine line. A similar bill by former GOP Assemblyman Brett Granlund of Yucaipa targeting bus drivers convicted of violent felonies was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis in 1999. To get the measure through the Legislature, Granlund had accepted amendments to appease organized labor by accommodating existing bus drivers. But those same amendments led to the veto from Davis, who wrote that "I cannot support a bill that allows any individual who has committed a serious felony ... to be employed by a school district to drive a school bus."

Morrow said he received a similar warning from Davis administration officials this year, and thus knew that he could not get the governor's signature if he yielded to the labor unions.

"I have been here for 10 years, so nothing really surprises me anymore, but this was an important bill to me," Morrow said. The grandfathering of felons as bus drivers, he said, is "a big loophole."

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