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Bills Vie for Passing Lane as Session Nears Finish

September 12, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Bills that would impose fees on new computers and release incapacitated prison inmates moved closer to law Thursday, while proposals that would limit hand weeding in farm fields and expand public disclosure of campaign contributions were at risk of being killed.

Today is the final day for bills to clear the Legislature before lawmakers disband until January, and both houses moved frantically against the deadline.

Among the bills that cleared the Assembly late Wednesday or Thursday:

* SB 20 by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) would require manufacturers to impose a fee of $6 to $10 on new personal computers and television screens to cover the cost of state efforts to recycle electronic waste.

Experts estimate that 6 million old computers and televisions are stacked in California homes, garages and offices. The new fees would take effect in July 2004. The bill passed on a close vote of 42-28 with Republican opposition. It returns to the Senate for final approval.

Some lawmakers said they feared the new fee would put California computer makers at a disadvantage if a court found it could not be legally imposed on out-of-state manufacturers. The bill was opposed by the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, but most Silicon Valley lawmakers endorsed it.

"This bill is a creative, innovative program to meet a pressing public need," said Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

* SB 278 by Sen. Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego) would allow the Department of Corrections to release prisoners so sick they cannot care for themselves. The bill would not apply to prisoners on death row or those convicted under California's three-strikes law. It passed 50-29 with some Republican support.

It returns to the Senate for final approval.

* SB 71 by Assemblyman Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood) would try to recoup some of the estimated $238 million in tax revenue that the state loses each year because of an underground market for tobacco products. The bill would require retailers to pay a one-time fee of $100 and require tobacco distributors and wholesalers to pay an annual license fee of $1,000. Manufacturers would have to pay a one-time fee of a penny for every pack of cigarettes sold in 2001.

The fees are expected to generate $22 million in the first full year of implementation. The bill also would allocate $11 million to the Board of Equalization to curb tobacco tax evasion. Horton said the bill should suppress tobacco tax evasion by 20% to 30%, which could amount to tens of millions of dollars in increased revenue.

The bill passed 51 to 15 and now goes to the governor.

* SB 420 by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) would create ID cards for patients and caregivers dispensing and using marijuana under Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative that allows medical use of the otherwise illegal drug. The bill, supported by the California District Attorneys Assn., passed 42-31 and now returns to the Senate.

* SB 578 by Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) would aim to curb sweatshops by requiring companies that sell uniforms to the state to sign a "sweat-free code of conduct" stipulating that they comply with basic labor laws governing wages, hours, health and safety and a prohibition against child labor.

"We keep narrowing and narrowing the companies that this state can go to to get bids, and the fewer bids you get the higher costs you're going to have," said Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine), who opposed the bill.

"Are people really arguing that they're losing their right to enslave people to work for them?" asked Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood). "This is something we should be embarrassed not to have already passed." The bill passed 47-31 and now returns to the Senate for agreement on Assembly amendments.

After a long, heated debate, the Assembly also appeared ready to pass a bill that would allow private attorneys to enforce state labor laws. Republicans blasted the bill, calling it a "bounty system" for trial attorneys and warned that it could lead to a cottage industry that would foster frivolous lawsuits.

"This is the single most blatant action by the trial attorneys I've ever seen," said Assemblyman Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach), who opposed the bill, SB 796, by Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana).

"It is time we work together for the betterment of California, rather than the betterment of special interests," said Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge).

The union-sponsored bill would allow for civil penalties of as much as $200 for each aggrieved employee per pay period.

Democrats argued that the state Department of Industrial Relations lacks the money to properly enforce labor laws. Assemblyman John Dutra (D-Fremont) noted that, while California has added 3 million workers in the last 15 years, it has bolstered its enforcement staff by only 14 positions.

The bill passed 42-33, but Republicans requested that the vote tally remain open until the end of Thursday's Assembly session.

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