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California, Out-Front State

September 27, 2002

This year's end-of-session flood of new state laws, more than 1,000 of them if Gov. Gray Davis signs them all, will certainly not dim California's reputation as the nation's legislative pioneer. It also sustains the state's reputation as a place where too much gets done in last-minute horse-trading with too little consideration.

The end-of-session bills included nationally significant and controversial issues from paying for workers on family leave to encouraging embryonic stem cell research, both of which Davis signed.

Earlier, the Legislature passed and Davis signed the country's first measure that attempts to slow global warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from autos.

In all three of these signature cases, Sacramento is moving counter to Washington. One reason is that Democrats hold big margins in the Senate and Assembly and have the governor's office, although Davis is more conservative on some issues than the legislative leadership. It came as a surprise to many that he signed the bill to provide partial pay for workers on family leave through the state disability system.

The paid leave bill was strongly backed by organized labor, which has supported Davis. But it was just as strongly opposed by business groups. Only experience will tell whether opponents' warnings of disastrous costs to business are Chicken Little or the real deal.

The global warming bill passed in spite of a high-profile multimillion-dollar campaign of doomsaying by auto makers and dealers.

Lawmakers sent Davis 1,236 bills in the final three weeks of the term, giving the governor and his staff until midnight Monday to act on them all. Through Wednesday, he had signed 864, vetoed 72 and had 300 still on his desk.

California has long been a legislative pioneer. The state's 1970 Clean Air Act remains the nation's strongest. Its 1982 auto lemon law became the model for the nation. This was the first state to ban assault weapons, in 1989.

One major disappointment this year was the failure of a bill to limit the sale and marketing of personal financial data by banks and insurance companies. These big campaign contributors managed to kill the bill even though polls showed it to be immensely popular.

A scandalous number of lawmakers allowed it to die by merely not voting on the measure, a way to effectively cast a "no" vote while avoiding the notoriety of being anti-consumer.

Davis, a beneficiary of the same institutions' largess, quietly opposed the bill unless it was softened with amendments.

California deserves to be the first in the nation in financial privacy. The Legislature can see that it happens early next year.

Legislators in other states already are drafting global warming bills. The same is likely on stem cell research and paid family leave.

"The states are laboratories for democracy and California is the chief laboratory," University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said after the session. We just wish the laboratory didn't accomplish most of its yearly work in a couple of chaotic days.

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