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GEORGE SKELTON / CAPITOL JOURNAL

Amid flood of bills, some crucial issues

August 14, 2008|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It's not all about budget brawling. Beneath the haze of haggling over taxes and spending, several hundred bills are lined up awaiting their fates as legislators rush to leave town.

The two-year regular session of the Legislature ends Aug. 31. More important, the secretary of state's deadline for placing any measure on the November ballot -- budget reform, water bond, revised high-speed rail proposal -- is this weekend. That deadline presumably could slip.

But what won't slip are the national political conventions that begin Aug. 25. Many Democrats -- including Assembly Speaker Karen Bass of Los Angeles -- want to be headed for Denver by the end of next week.

So bills are flying off the Senate and Assembly floors. Lobbyists are flooding the Capitol trying to propel or derail measures.

Many proposals would significantly change things in California. Here are four:

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Bad baby bottles

Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) has maneuvered a bill (SB 1713) onto the Assembly floor that would ban a suspect chemical -- bisphenol A, or BPA -- from baby bottles, formula cans, sippy cups and other products marketed for kids under 3.

BPA is an estrogen-like compound used to make hard plastic. The National Institutes of Health has reported "some concern" that the brains and reproductive organs of fetuses and babies are threatened by BPA, which leaches from beverage containers and can liners.

Scientists -- based on animal research -- suspect that the chemical disrupts hormones and alters genes, programming a child for breast or prostate cancer, premature female puberty, attention deficit disorders and other reproductive and neurological problems.

"This is a chemical we don't want babies exposed to," says Frederick vom Saal, a reproductive scientist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who has extensively studied BPA. "The fetus and newborns are at the most unprotected stages of their lives. Once the harm occurs, it never can be undone."

Wal-Mart and Toys R Us are phasing out baby bottles containing BPA. Canada also is banning the chemical from baby bottles.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to consider the chemical safe, but is reviewing the research.

"What you have," says Vom Saal, "is a federal regulatory system that is completely incapable of dealing with chemicals that generate huge amounts of income for very powerful lobbying groups.

"It has been up to the states and individuals -- using civil litigation -- to deal with these situations."

The American Chemistry Council has been using scare tactics in ads and mailers, implying that the bill would yank food from babies' mouths.

The can manufacturers' lobby, represented in Sacramento by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's former communications director, Rob Stutzman, advocates allowing the California Environmental Protection Agency to regulate BPA. "Let scientists do the work instead of politicians looking for sexy issues," Stutzman says.

Scientists already have done enough work to show that BPA is too risky for little kids.

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Unsafe food packaging

Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) has a similar anti-cancer bill (SB 1313) on the Assembly floor. It would bar the use of two toxic chemicals -- PFOA and PFOS -- in food packaging materials, such as hamburger wrappers and microwave popcorn sacks.

The chemical coatings prevent the leaking of grease, but they leach into the food when heated and are potentially carcinogenic, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is seeking a voluntary phase-out.

Corbett wants an outright ban starting in 2010.

"Studies link these chemicals to several kinds of cancer, developmental disabilities and cholesterol problems," Corbett says. "You have a choice of getting greasy fingers or keeping your fingers clean while exposing yourself to many health problems."

The chemical lobby, of course, has ganged up on the bill.

This is a no-brainer: Reduce cancer. Develop new food packaging.

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'Clean money'

Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) has a bill (AB 583) on the Senate floor that would create California's first public financing system for state election campaigns. It would start with just one office: secretary of state.

Candidates would participate voluntarily. After collecting $5 donations and signatures from 7,500 voters, they'd qualify for $900,000 in the primary and $1.3 million in the general election. That's roughly what Democrat Debra Bowen spent to win the office in 2006.

I've long advocated public financing, especially for the Legislature. Either the public buys the politicians, I've written, or the special interests will. And do.

Unfortunately, the financing in this bill is too weird. The $1.9-million annual cost wouldn't be paid for by the public, but by lobbyists through substantially increased regulatory fees.

Bowen favors public financing, but is neutral on this scheme.

Public financing: Good. Lobbyist financing: Huh?

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Metal theft

Assemblyman Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) and Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) have wound up with identical bills (AB 844, SB 691) to control the California epidemic of metal theft, a particular scourge of farmers. Recently, utilities and businesses also have been losing valuable copper wiring and pipe to the bandits.

Under the bill, people selling scrap metal to recycling yards would have to provide a thumbprint and photo ID, then wait three days for their checks. No cash payments.

"Metal prices have gone up and drug use has gone up, so it's been a mad dash for cash by meth addicts," says Nick Warner, lobbyist for the California State Sheriffs' Assn.

"Outside of the state budget, this is by far the biggest issue facing law enforcement."

Unlike the budget, this is a legislative success story. The governor forced a compromise with the recycling lobby.

"This is one of those times where the Legislature is going to help people," Warner says. "It's not all screwed up."

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george.skelton@latimes.com

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