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Lawmakers Work Through the Night in Turbulent Closing Session

September 14, 2003|Nancy Vogel and Evan Halper | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — In a turbulent 17-hour marathon end to the legislative session early Saturday, partisan conflict killed a bill to extend California's registered sex-offender database and nearly blocked restitution for a man who spent 12 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Bills to protect sacred tribal sites and boost firefighter pensions died, but others to boost fees on rental cars and tweak state labor agreements, criticized as overly generous, will go to the governor to be signed into law or vetoed.

Lawmakers worked through the night, sometimes handling bills that had been drastically amended just hours earlier. Wrung out by long debates over sweeping health insurance and workers' compensation bills and made edgy by the possibility that Democratic Gov. Gray Davis will be thrown out of office in an Oct. 7 recall election, Assembly Republicans and Democrats at times taunted one another like schoolchildren.

Work in the lower house bogged down as Republicans repeatedly withdrew for private meetings and interrupted debate with parliamentary questions. At one point past midnight, acting Assembly Speaker Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) and Assemblywoman Wilma Chan (D-Alameda) pierced the tension with laughter by appearing on the dais in silk jockey outfits, carrying riding crops.

"Members, we need order in the house," said Kehoe. "I'm sorry, but it has finally come to this. It is time to crack the whip."

"We're in meltdown," said Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim).

But partisan pressure built again shortly before 3 a.m., when Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) quietly and emotionally appealed for Republican support on a bill to rush payment of $428,000 -- $100 per day of his incarceration -- to an East Palo Alto man wrongly convicted of killing his former girlfriend. Rick Walker served 12 years in prison for first-degree murder before the Santa Clara County district attorney acknowledged that the wrong man had been convicted.

Without quick action, Walker would have had to wait roughly six months. The Legislature typically appropriates money for claims only twice a year.

Simitian's bill required a two-thirds majority vote, meaning the support of at least seven of the Assembly's minority Republicans. But in the last several weeks, Republican leaders had steadfastly refused to help Democrats pass bills that required a two-thirds majority vote. They withheld votes in retribution for what they called a betrayal by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), who refused to approve the nearly $300 million in increased spending that Assembly Republicans had insisted upon in exchange for their votes on the state budget in July. The additional money would have gone to rural law enforcement and airport security, among other things.

Simitian begged Republicans to set aside the dispute for the sake of Walker.

"I only know that the system has made him a victim once," Simitian said. "Please do not make him a victim twice."

Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) quickly rose in the hushed chamber.

"Because of the circumstances," he said, "we're going to ask our members to either lay off or vote no."

Democrats appealed to their colleagues.

"A vote against this measure is a vote for the bureaucracy and against the humanity we should be about," said Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach).

"We'll know whether in fact there still exists the compassionate conservative," said Assemblyman John Longville (D-Rialto) shortly before the roll was called.

The measure failed, with only two Republicans -- Shirley Horton of Chula Vista and Alan Nakanishi of Lodi -- supporting it.

But 25 minutes later, Simitian brought the measure back for a second vote.

With no debate, 13 Republicans switched their votes and passed the measure 62-0. Loud, sustained applause erupted in the chamber.

"I was hopeful," Simitian said afterward. "But I was not optimistic."

Assembly Republicans rejected another two-thirds majority vote bill by freshman Nicole Parra, a Democrat from Hanford who barely won her seat against a Republican opponent. The bill, AB 1313, would have prevented the January expiration of the law that gives the public access to the state sex-offender registry.

The 51-0 failure -- falling three votes short -- of the bill means that starting Jan. 1, Californians can no longer go to their local police or sheriff's office to review a database showing the location of 81,000 serious and high-risk sex offenders.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer expressed disappointment and frustration Saturday over the failure to extend Megan's Law, as the sex-offender registry is known in honor of a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed in 1994 by a neighbor who, her parents discovered later, was a convicted sex offender.

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