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Legislature OKs Workers' Comp Reform

Lawmakers wade through a number of measures on the session's final day. A bill on mandatory health coverage for workers stalls in the Assembly.

September 13, 2003|Nancy Vogel, Carl Ingram and Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — The Legislature passed a sweeping overhaul of the workers' compensation system late Friday, rolling back costs that have squeezed businesses and drained government coffers.

The action came on the last day of a bitter legislative session that played out in the shadow of the California recall campaign.

Gov. Gray Davis, in a statement released moments after the measure passed, hailed it as a major advance.

"This reform plan will help keep jobs in California and encourage expansion while maintaining benefits for injured workers," the governor said.

Republicans, however, complained that it does not go far enough to ease spiraling premiums.

With partisan tensions infusing even the most routine debate, the Senate also approved ambitious legislation on a straight party-line vote that would, for the first time, require California employers to buy health insurance for uninsured workers.

In an initial vote in the Assembly, the measure had passed with five votes to spare. But Republicans asked that it be set aside for reconsideration later in the evening as they prepared to adjourn until January.

Under the bill, SB 2, by Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco), employers would be required to pay for health coverage for about 1 million members of the working poor, or pay a fee into a statewide pool that would purchase policies on their behalf.

Also approved by both houses and sent to the governor were measures that would:

* Authorize the transfer from the state to the Wildlife Conservation Board of 62 acres for preservation in the Ballona wetlands fronting Santa Monica Bay north of Los Angeles International Airport.

* Authorize workers to sue their employers for violations of labor laws and to share in civil fines if they prevail. Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), a trial attorney, said the labor-sponsored bill, SB 796, was necessary because cumulative budget cuts and other factors have reduced the ability of the state to adequately enforce labor laws.

* Allow undocumented immigrant students to apply for financial aid for college if they have attended high school in California for three years and graduated. Existing law allows such students to avoid paying higher nonresident tuition at state colleges.

Stretching over 285 days, the legislative session at times seemed to drop from public view as the recall movement to oust Davis gained momentum.

At other points, it became a major focus -- especially over the summer, when the Legislature squabbled over closing a $38-billion budget shortfall.

Throughout, lawmakers described a polarized atmosphere within the Capitol, where frustrations were palpable and consensus rare.

A largely symbolic resolution that passed Friday -- one of the nearly 3,200 measures introduced this session -- underscored the fractious tone.

In January, the Senate passed a resolution making Feb. 6 -- Ronald Reagan's birthday -- "Ronald Reagan Day."

The measure was sent to the Assembly, where it languished for months. The author, Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta), said Assembly Democrats objected to language extolling Reagan's presidency.

The Assembly amended the resolution to make it less effusive, removing an assertion, for example, that the Republican president had worked in a "bipartisan manner to enact his bold agenda of restoring accountability and common sense to government."

The Senate passed the amended version Friday.

"He's a California governor and a Republican president and he deserves a day in California," Battin said in an interview.

"I thought it was silly that they should be so scared about saying nice things about Ronald Reagan."

The session's final day got off to a typically divisive start.

Burton, a powerful presence in the Legislature who has served off and on for four decades, lost his temper at Republicans when they began voting against a Senate rule change he had proposed.

The change would have required that bills sanctioning labor contracts be in printed form at least two days before they could be voted on by lawmakers.

But Republican leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga objected that the rule change did not apply to the provisions of the contracts themselves. He said that Republicans wanted the opportunity to examine the contracts before voting.

Burton erupted when GOP members began voting against his plan, calling them "idiots" and a "bunch of geniuses led by a genius leader."

Although the rule change was approved on a 30-4 vote, Burton was so angered by the four Republican votes that he killed it by invoking a parliamentary tactic that, in effect, reversed the outcome.

Even the Legislature's more productive moments were laced with partisan feuding.

The workers' comp measure is an attempt to cope with a mounting expense that many say threatens to drive businesses out of California. Both parties have called for some sort of overhaul.

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