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California Moves Into Uncharted Territory

New laws will curb 'greenhouse' emissions, allow human stem cell research, offer more paid leave

January 01, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — If you oppose global warming, favor stem cell research to find a potential cure for cancer or Alzheimer's disease, or agree that workers should be paid while on leave to care for sick children or parents, 2003 holds promise for you.

At midnight, bills to at least begin addressing what would be first-in-the-nation efforts in these areas became law, along with hundreds of other laws passed last year by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gray Davis.

Most became effective at the start of this new year, but the activation date of other bills will be postponed until 2004 or even later. Typically, delayed implementation gives the bureaucracy extra time to prepare and to install new programs that will affect the lives and pocketbooks of Californians.

In the 2002 session of the Legislature, lawmakers introduced 2,554 bills and resolutions. Of those reaching Davis, the governor signed 1,168, vetoed 264 and let one become law without his signature, his office said. Last year, he signed 948 bills and vetoed 169.

The consensus at the Capitol was that, compared with recent high-achievement sessions, this will be recorded as one of only moderate accomplishments, mostly because there was virtually no money to create new programs or to expand programs already on the books.

However, California did break new ground.

One bill that took effect today authorizes the use of human embryonic stem cells for research purposes, despite the national policy discouraging such research.

Supporters of the new law, written by state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), argue that potential discoveries from stem cells offer the best hope for saving lives by finding ways to prevent, treat and cure maladies including cancer, stroke, heart disease and Alzheimer's, and by repairing spinal cord injuries.

The law allows research using stem cells from any source, including human embryos, which is subject to approval by an institutional review board. In an action praised by opponents of abortion, President Bush imposed federal limitations on stem cell research in 2001, including restrictions on federal funds for grants.

Another bill makes California the only state to fight global warming by imposing restrictions on so-called greenhouse gases from automobile exhaust pipes, starting with the 2009 model year.

The measure was carried by first-term Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) on behalf of a coalition of conservation organizations. Car manufacturers and the oil industry spent millions of dollars in an all-out lobbying and public relations campaign to defeat it.

The statute directs the state Air Resources Board, normally an air quality regulator, to achieve a "maximum feasible reduction" standard for release of carbon dioxide, one of the most common greenhouse gases that waft into the atmosphere, form a heat trap and, most scientists believe, intensify global warming.

Backers of the bill agreed that, without a similar determined response from other states and nations, the California law would be largely symbolic. But Davis praised it as a demonstration that the state is acting to address the "greatest environmental challenge of the 21st century," much as it did years ago, when it ordered that lead be removed from gasoline.

Opponents of the global warming bill charged that it would hand to a nonelective board the authority to raise certain taxes, at least indirectly, and put certain vehicles, such as SUVs, off limits to California purchasers. Both claims were denounced as false by proponents.

Organized labor's biggest victory of the legislative year won't take effect until July 1, 2004. Beginning then, California workers will be paid as much as 55% of their normal wages when they take time off from work to care for sick children or other family members or to bond with new babies. Labor leaders predicted that the new California program would become a model for other states and for Congress.

As a temporary disability insurance benefit, the program will be financed entirely by employees through payroll withholding. A worker will be eligible to receive compensation for a maximum of six weeks over 12 months and must have a physician's consent before taking the leave. An employer can demand that a worker use two weeks of vacation before receiving the paid leave.

Employers opposed the bill by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), charging, among other things, that workers would abuse the program and that businesses would be financially damaged by having to train replacements for employees taking the paid leaves.

A second victory for labor in the Democratic-dominated Capitol occurred when the Legislature passed and Davis signed a controversial bill to give unionized agricultural laborers the power to demand mandatory mediation when contract talks with growers get hung up.

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