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Bickering Lawmakers Pass Bills

GOP, Democrats both have complaints to make as legislation advances on corporate fraud, handgun safety and garbage collection fees.

September 05, 2003|Evan Halper and Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — With accusations of sloppy lawmaking echoing through the Legislature, California lawmakers advanced bills Thursday that would crack down on corporate fraud, require safety devices on handguns and raise fees on garbage collection.

Assembly Republicans accused majority Democrats of abusing their leadership power by trying to push through bills without giving the GOP a chance to analyze what was in them.

They protested the last-minute addition of new garbage fees to a bill that never mentioned them until this week. They complained about impromptu committee meetings called without adequate public notice. And to express their unhappiness, some in the GOP took administrative actions intended to slow some legislation down.

The bickering wasn't only along partisan lines.

State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) had harsh words for fellow party members in the Assembly who helped defeat his bill to ban the burning of agricultural waste in the Central Valley.

The bill, SB 705, is part of a package Florez has authored to cut down on farm-generated air pollution in a region where air problems are among the nation's most severe. Yet more than a dozen Assembly Democrats, many of whom have been praised by environmental groups for their record, either voted against the measure or didn't vote at all -- a practice lawmakers sometimes use rather than offend constituents or contributors by taking a formal position.

"These urban liberal Democrats have told us they are more interested in the agricultural lobby's pockets than they are in our kids' lungs," Florez said after his bill was defeated on a 31-33 vote. "They are pandering in a serious way.... Most of them have 90% voting records with the Sierra Club. It's sad. I think it's very sad."

The charge didn't help Florez gain friends in the party as he lobbied for more votes, hoping he could get Assembly approval through another floor vote. By the end of the day, he had only picked up four more votes, still six short of what was needed to pass the measure. The bill is expected to come up for another vote in the coming days.

"I think that is insulting to members," said Assemblyman John Dutra (D-Fremont), who abstained from voting on the bill and called Florez's comments desperate.

"It is not a tactic that is appreciated or gets a good response," he said. Dutra said he was following the advice of Assembly Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Barbara Matthews (D-Tracy), a valley representative herself, who warned that there are not adequate disposal facilities to handle the waste farmers would have once burning is outlawed. Dutra and other opponents said they would reconsider it if another pending bill is approved to increase money for biomass disposal systems.

While the burn ban went up in smoke, Assembly Democrats were able to muster just enough votes to pass a requirement that all new handguns beginning in 2006 be fitted with devices that either warn when a bullet is in the chamber or locks the trigger if the ammunition magazine is not loaded.

The bill, SB 489, was written by Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena), whose son died in an accidental shooting. Supporters of the bill cited a decade-old report from Congress that suggests nearly a quarter of accidental shootings would be prevented by the so-called chamber load indicators. They argued that many gun users are unaware that semiautomatic weapons can still be fired even when their magazine is removed or emptied.

"I grew up hunting and fishing. This is a common-sense issue," said Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View), who compared the safety devices to seat belts and fire alarms. "If it averts the death of one promising young person, it is worth it."

Republicans argued fiercely against the bill. They said many of the Democrats supporting it don't even own guns and are in no position to dictate the best way to handle firearms. Republicans warned that the devices could malfunction and drive up the rate of accidental shootings. On the first vote, the bill was defeated. But when it came up later in the day, it passed 41 to 33 and will now go back to the Senate.

Republicans expressed outrage when a bill that involved licensing boards at the Department of Consumer Affairs was amended to allow a raise in the fees that Californians pay for trash collection service. They accused the Democrats of abusing their power by adding the amendments late in the process and questioned whether such a fee is even legal.

Although taxes require a two-thirds majority vote, Democrats have the ability to raise fees to pay for a specific service or program by a simple majority. The garbage collection fee, which would raise roughly $100 million, is the first of more than $1 billion of such fees expected to be proposed by Democratic lawmakers before the end of next week, when the session is scheduled to end for the year. The bill with the garbage fees is heading to committee and will appear on the floor again next week.

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