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Legislators Speed Through Final Bills

GOP assails swift action on measures targeting pollution, restrooms and online sales.

September 11, 2003|Evan Halper and Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — California legislators whipped through dozens of bills in an end-of-session frenzy Wednesday, ultimately passing measures that would crack down on Central Valley air pollution, require cleaner bathrooms in public schools and move the state a step closer to taxing sales over the Internet.

Republicans continued to voice frustration at the fast pace in which legislation breezed through both houses, which Democrats dominate. Some accused Democrats of trying to take advantage of a vulnerable Gov. Gray Davis, who faces a recall election Oct. 7. The governor will probably feel pressure to either sign various measures into law, or risk losing the support of interest groups that are pushing them.

Legislative rules prohibit new measures from being introduced at this point in the session. But legislators got around that with a technique known as "gut and amend": several existing bills that had been languishing for months were suddenly stripped of their original contents, filled with new amendments and brought up for a floor vote.

Even issues as seemingly benign as clean bathrooms in public schools sparked spirited debate.

Assemblyman Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) told legislators that money for keeping school bathrooms clean is sometimes diverted by schools, leaving the facilities so dirty that children don't use them.

"[Students] should be concentrating on what goes on in the classroom, not whether they may get an infection from using the bathroom," he said.

Some Republicans countered that it was absurd that a law had to be passed to force schools to keep their bathrooms clean. "We're debating the wrong issue here," said Assemblyman Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale), saying the solution to the problem was getting new school board members in the districts with dirty bathrooms.

The bill, already approved by the Senate, passed 47 to 29 in the Assembly, and Davis announced that he would sign it.

"Clean and working facilities are elements of a well-run school," he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Democrats stopped some inter-party fighting that had threatened to kill a package of groundbreaking clean-air bills for the Central Valley.

Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) had accused urban liberals -- usually on the same side as him on environmental issues -- of colluding with the agriculture lobby to stop his proposals because it could cost them political contributions. The bills failed to make it through the Assembly last week when several Democrats abstained from voting on them.

On Wednesday, the bills were back, and Democrats worked out a compromise to get them passed.

The package would require farmers to abide by federal and state clean-air laws from which they have been exempt. Under the compromise, the new restrictions will be implemented on a graduated scale in which farms in areas where air quality has been improving will be subject to less stringent requirements.

"Three of the four dirtiest cities in the entire country in terms of air pollution are in the Central Valley," said Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno). "The agriculture industry has been 100% exempt from federal, state and local air quality laws. This bill is a comprehensive measure to clean the air for future residents of the San Joaquin Valley."

Republicans called the package a "job killer" that will put more farms out of business.

"California farmers will be the only farmers in America ... to have to run their family farms under these regulations," said Assemblyman Steve Samuelian (R-Clovis).

Assembly legislators ultimately passed the central bill in the package, AB 700, by a vote of 45 to 24, and then went on to pass the companion bills soon after. The bills will now go back to the Senate, where they are expected to be approved and sent to the governor.

Democrats also managed to pass measures that they hope will raise billions of dollars for dwindling state coffers by cracking down on what they described as abusive tax shelters, and ultimately enabling the state to tax sales made over the Internet.

On a bipartisan 24-10 vote, the Senate gave final legislative approval to the Internet tax bill by Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey). It would install California as a member of a 38-state organization known as the Streamlined Sales Tax Project, whose goal is to help states find ways to tax Internet transactions.

The U.S. Supreme Court has forbidden states to tax online sales unless the retailer also has a physical presence in the state, such as a store, headquarters or warehouse.

Traditional California merchants have long complained that online sales give an unfair advantage to their Internet competitors. Bowen said the state lost an estimated $1.75 million in revenue from online sales in 2001 and stands to lose much more this year as Internet sales expand.

Davis has yet to take a position on the bill, but has said in the past that he would consider supporting taxation of Internet sales as part of an overall budget reform package.

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