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Last-Minute Bills Receive Little Scrutiny

In the hectic final hours of the legislative session, lawmakers may make significant changes. Watchdogs don't have time to counter them.

September 02, 2006|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — As it lumbered for months through the legislative process, there was no indication that the innocuous proposal to reshape the state's tourism board would be a boon to the rental car industry.

Then, in the waning days of the session that ended Thursday, amid a flurry of last-minute action on dozens of major issues, Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) made a change to his bill that has consumer advocates fuming.

Legalized price fixing, they call it: The 11th-hour amendments would ease certain restrictions on the industry, which watchdog groups say would invite a coordinated rate hike by car renters. The plan was rushed through a committee literally under cover of darkness at a late-night hearing before being passed the next day by the full Assembly with less than three minutes of debate.

"This is so typical of what happens at the last minute," said Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the San Diego-based Center for Public Interest Law. "All sorts of horrible things go sweeping through."

Normally, drafting laws involves several public hearings strung out over many months. But near the end of the session, dozens of "jam jobs" emerge -- bills that, by design, are dashed through the Legislature so quickly that even their authors may not know what's hidden in them. Often, they involve goodies for various interest groups.

The ploy doesn't always work; some jam jobs fall short. This year, that category included a plan to give Boeing Corp. an exclusive tax break and a proposal to remove safeguards to protect taxpayers against unscrupulous and incompetent computer contractors.

But along with Leno's bill, many other jam jobs prevailed. One would provide new fees for automobile dealers to pocket. Another is a campaign finance measure that experts say would create personal slush funds for lawmakers.

Campaign finance experts have no doubt that lawmakers knew exactly what they were doing when, at midnight Wednesday, they resuscitated a measure that appeared to have been left for dead months ago.

Legislative leaders suddenly fast-tracked the measure, skipping committee votes on SB 145 by Kevin Murray (D-Culver City). The bill would lift the ban on sitting officeholders' accepting contributions when they are no longer running for reelection or for another seat. The money raised could be used for such things as meals and travel.

It was a classic move, one that didn't give public interest groups "time to get all riled up and get people to oppose it," said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "This bill allows them to create personal slush funds."

Derek Cressman, executive director of TheRestofUs.org, a Sacramento group that monitors campaign finance, called the measure "exactly the wrong thing to do."

Supporters of the bill, including legislative leaders from both parties, say they need such funds for traveling to events and for paying the lawyers who file their campaign finance reports. Although the last public hearing for the measure was more than a year ago, they say state regulators were consulted on all the changes made since then.

The measure, said Richard Stapler, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), updates obsolete rules that "complicate an elected official's ability to carry out all of their officeholder activities."

And Leno defends his car rental bill, saying it will invigorate efforts to promote tourism in California. The controversial amendments, he says, merely alter advertising rules.

The bill, AB 2592, would allow companies to omit a 10% airport concession fee from their basic advertised rates. Leno noted that Consumer's Union took a neutral position on the measure.

Fellmeth, a former prosecutor who tried price-fixing cases, said the rule change would allow rental companies to deceive consumers by keeping their basic rates the same even though customers would have to pay the airport fee as an add-on.

Auto dealers also scored a win this week. Lawmakers rushed through a bill that would allow them to raise the "document preparation fee" they charge car buyers by $10, to $55.

The proposal seemed to come out of nowhere. Its author, Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), stripped all the contents out of a bill that until a week ago dealt with air quality issues, replacing them with the fee hike.

That time-honored legislative maneuver, known as a "gut and amend," allowed Torlakson to go forward with a measure in the heat of the Legislature's last few days that would otherwise have to have been introduced months ago. The bill passed.

A bid by Murray of Culver City to help a political ally was not so successful. A newsletter read widely in the Capitol exposed Murray's last-minute attempt to aid the career of William Burke, husband of Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.

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