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Assembly OKs Bill Revoking Farm Industry Tax Breaks

Savings would go toward improved medical coverage for field workers. Legislation, opposed by growers, now moves to Senate.

June 06, 2003|Gregg Jones and Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — After intense lobbying by the United Farm Workers union and a sometimes angry and impassioned floor debate, the Assembly narrowly approved a bill Thursday that would revoke about $80 million in agricultural tax breaks and use the savings to pay for improved medical coverage for California's farm laborers.

The bill passed with a bare majority of 41 votes, with 33 Republicans and farm-area Democrats in opposition. It now moves to the Senate, where supporters expect another struggle.

The vote came during a hectic day at the Capitol, as legislators rushed to meet the Friday deadline for acting on bills in the house in which they were filed. Bills that were cleared included legislation to require installation of water meters in some California cities and a bill that would restrict public agencies from hiring children as interpreters. A bill to prevent public schools from adopting Native American mascots was defeated.

Assembly Bill 923, the farm worker legislation, would give growers tax credits for providing medical insurance to their laborers. It would pay for the credits by revoking sales tax exemptions on farm machinery, diesel fuel and other items -- tax breaks given to growers to win the Republican votes needed to pass the state budget in 2001.

"We're very happy," said a UFW spokesman, Marc Grossman, who said the bill is designed to reward farmers who already provide health coverage and to give financial incentives to those who don't. "But we know we have a hard fight ahead."

Farm groups expressed disappointment at the Assembly action, which they said would cause further financial damage to an industry battered by a sluggish economy and domestic and foreign competition.

Both sides have made their case to Gov. Gray Davis, but he has not taken a position, Press Secretary Steven Maviglio said.

Republicans attempted to make Thursday's floor debate on the farm workers' bill a referendum on the trustworthiness of Assembly Democrats as the two parties struggle to agree on the current budget.

Republicans are refusing to support tax increases, which Democrats say are an unavoidable part of the fiscal solution needed to address the state's $38.2-billion budget shortfall this year and next.

"Vote for the bill!" taunted Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta). "Break your promise!"

Democrats argued in response that the urgent health needs of farm workers and the state's dire financial conditions outweighed the need for maintaining tax breaks for farmers.

In an effort to win the support of Central Valley Democrats, Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles) accepted amendments that would allow some small farmers to retain tax breaks on equipment and diesel fuel and would extend by another year the sales-tax exemption on the purchase of farm equipment. But farm groups said the definition of small farmer was so narrow -- gross receipts of less than $250,000 from the sale of agricultural products last year -- as to make it meaningless for most farmers.

In other legislative action, the Assembly rejected a bill to ban public schools from using Native American sports team names and mascots such as "Redskins," "Indians," "Braves" and "Chiefs."

On Thursday the bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), garnered only 35 votes initially. When lawmakers were allowed to cast votes again several hours later, AB 858 failed by a vote of 31 to 37.

Republicans had attacked the bill as trivial, saying team names are not demeaning but a source of school pride. At one point, Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) sought to emphasize his point by singing the alma mater of Arcadia High School, home of the Apaches.

"You people are so messed up, it's beyond description," Leslie said to Assembly Democrats, then launched into song: "We sing to great Arcadia, thy spirit strong and bold."

Other bills passed by the Assembly in the rush to approve legislation included:

* AB 1093 by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) would require the state and its contractors to pay employees at least $10 an hour with health benefits or $12 an hour if no health insurance coverage is offered. It passed 45 to 31, with Republicans opposed.

* AB 292 by Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) would prohibit courts, state agencies or any state-funded organizations from using children younger than 15 as interpreters. The bill passed 42 to 30. Yee argued that having to translate tense situations involving domestic violence or medical diagnoses can harm children.

* AB 514 by Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) would require three cities -- Folsom, Orange Cove and Fresno -- to install water meters on all homes by 2013. Kehoe had attempted to require meters in the city of Sacramento too, but was forced to amend the bill by opposition that included the head of the Appropriations Committee, Darrell Steinberg, (D-Sacramento). The bill passed 52 to 24.

*

Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this report.

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