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GOP fails to block plan to upgrade courthouses

Assembly Republicans criticize the state's top judge for rulings on same-sex marriage and parole for murderers.

August 30, 2008|Nancy Vogel and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Assembly Republicans, criticizing the state's top judge for rulings on same-sex marriage and parole for murderers, tried Friday to block a $5-billion plan to upgrade California courthouses.

The move failed as Democrats, who hold a majority, passed the measure 43 to 16, without any Republican votes.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), who abstained, cited state Chief Justice Ronald M. George's May opinion sanctioning same-sex marriage and another this month curbing the state's power to deny parole to murderers. Spitzer described George, a fellow Republican, as an "activist" judge.

"I think those two opinions written by Justice George really soured people on the court issue," Spitzer said, "even though intellectually we all understand that the funding of the courts really has nothing to do with Justice George's writing of a particular legal opinion."

The bill was one of dozens approved by legislators Friday on topics including public financing of political campaigns and electronic bingo.

Lawmakers, whose work has been overshadowed by their failure to approve a budget two months past the deadline, plan to work over the weekend so they can finish voting on bills before their session ends at midnight Sunday.

The courthouse measure, SB 1407 by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), would pay for renovations and construction of court facilities by borrowing $5 billion. The money would be repaid with revenue generated by raising court filing fees and penalties for criminal and traffic offenses.

"I find it ironic that the same people who say the courts should not legislate from the bench attempted to hold the judicial system hostage through the legislative process," Perata said.

The Senate passed a similar version of the bill in May with Republican support, shortly after the state's high court ruled 4 to 3, in an opinion written by George, that people of the same sex have a constitutional right to marry. The legislation, as amended by the Assembly, returns now to the Senate for final approval.

Philip Carrizosa, a spokesman for the court, said George would not comment.

Assemblyman Mike Villines (R-Clovis), the lower house's minority leader, said some of his members were concerned not by the rulings but by the idea of higher fees and borrowing money, which would put "an undue burden on hard-working people."

Other action Friday:

* The Senate voted 25 to 13 to allow Los Angeles County to put a half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase on the Nov. 4 ballot to fund transit and highway projects. The Assembly had approved the bill, AB 2321 by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), and is expected to sign off on minor amendments before sending it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is unclear when bills might be sent to him, because he has said he will veto legislation until a budget is passed.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board voted in July to seek the sales tax hike from 8.25 to 8.75 cents on the dollar. The increase could raise up to $40 billion over 30 years, according to MTA officials.

* Making a foray into public campaign financing, the Senate approved a "fair elections" bill that would -- with voter approval -- give state funding to candidates for secretary of state in 2014 if they agree not to accept donations greater than $5 per person from the public. Voters would have to approve the pilot program in 2010. Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said the measure was a response to the role of special interests in campaigns.

"We talk a lot about campaign finance reform and try to come up with a system that is fair," Steinberg said. "This is a very modest proposal to try a different way."

Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta), who voted against the proposal, complained that money for the candidates would come from a $350 annual fee on lobbyists, lobbying firms and their employers.

"They don't think it's fair that you are going to put a tax on them, because they have nothing to do with the secretary of state," Battin said.

The bill, AB 583 by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), was approved 21 to 18 and will go to the governor if the Assembly agrees to minor changes made by the Senate.

* In a decision that favored one of Sacramento's most influential interest groups, the Senate voted 24 to 9 to outlaw electronic bingo machines that compete with slot machines owned by Indian tribes, which contribute heavily to lawmakers' campaigns. Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), the author of SB 1369, likened the bingo machines to slots, which in California may be operated only by tribes.

"We must honor agreements we have entered into," Cedillo said. Opponents objected that the bill would hurt small charities that make money from electronic bingo machines.

* The Assembly defeated a measure that would have made it easier for consumers to comparison-shop for health insurance plans. It would have banned plans that cover only hospitalization.

"Most people don't realize how much care they need may come outside of a hospital," said Anthony Wright, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Health Access California, which supported the bill.

Insurance companies and health maintenance organizations opposed the bill, SB 1522 by Steinberg. It failed 36 to 35.

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Times staff writer Michael Rothfeld contributed to this report.

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