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Budget woes overshadow Legislature's other efforts

California lawmakers passed several big bills this year. But with no spending plan in place, most remain in limbo.

September 02, 2008|Nancy Vogel and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — The California Legislature closed the curtain on its session last weekend after acting on more than 1,000 bills.

But lawmakers' greatest unfinished task -- passing a state budget -- marked a tumultuous session in which two of four top legislative leaders were replaced.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata called 2008 "a bad year" and said that any legislative accomplishments would be forgotten in light of the ongoing budget stalemate.

"We could have discovered a cure for drought," the Oakland Democrat said, "and this is what will be remembered: That we couldn't pull a budget in on time."

The year had opened with hope in legislative chambers. On the February ballot, voters would be asked to amend term limits to allow lawmakers to stay longer in their jobs.

But voters refused. They rejected a term-limits adjustment, kicking off a scramble to replace lame-duck legislative leaders.

The Senate's minority leader, Dick Ackerman of Irvine, was replaced by Dave Cogdill of Modesto. And senators named Sacramento Democrat Darrell Steinberg to replace Perata, although Steinberg agreed to wait until November to assume the mantle. Jockeying continued for weeks in the Assembly, until Democrats lined up behind Karen Bass of Los Angeles.

Bass, who had no experience leading state budget tussles, took the reins from Fabian Nunez, also a Los Angeles Democrat, in May. She inherited a yawning shortfall, now pegged at $15.2 billion.

Perata had his own distractions, including a recall drive that he launched and then suspended against Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater), as well as an ongoing federal corruption investigation of himself and several associates.

The biggest obstacle to the lawmaking ambitions of majority Democrats this year was simple: No money to spend.

"How can you do anything without money?" asked Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Montebello).

Still, lawmakers managed to forge consensus on such issues as green chemistry, smart growth and scrap-metal theft.

They decided to ask state scientists to review the chemicals Californians are exposed to in everyday products and determine which pose a health risk. They would give the Department of Toxic Substances Control authority to regulate exposure to chemicals, if necessary, through such things as labels on products or outright bans on chemicals.

"We need to break the link between toxics and cancer in our society, find alternatives to the most toxic substances that we use every day, and we have to do it now," said Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), author of the proposal known as the "green chemistry initiative." "It really sets the type of policy we should embrace here in California," said Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita).

Democratic legislators hailed a bid by Steinberg to curb suburban sprawl -- and therefore commuting times and the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases spewed by cars and trucks. That measure would steer state money for roads toward projects that put homes close to workplaces.

Republican legislators said the measure would, in effect, put the unelected Air Resources Board in charge of local development, but cities, counties, developers and environmentalists support the bill.

Trying to solve a more tangible problem, lawmakers moved to crack down on rampant metal theft.

The rising value of aluminum, bronze, copper and other metals has spurred thieves to yank wiring from buildings and air-conditioning units, steal manhole covers and irrigation pumps and destroy statues and fire hydrants. After being sold for quick cash, the metal is often sold again.

Efforts to curb such theft last year failed. This year lawmakers agreed on a measure that would require scrap dealers to get photographs, thumbprints and addresses of sellers and to pay them by check with a three-day delay.

"So much damage is done for so little gain," said Assemblyman Doug La Malfa, a Sacramento Valley Republican. "This is one of the examples of government working well -- finally."

Legislators also had health and safety in mind in 2008.

They moved to ban people from holding animals in their laps or reading, writing or sending text messages while driving. They acted to require roughly 17,000 chain restaurants to start posting the calorie content of their food. And in action already signed into law, they barred restaurants from using artificial margarines and oils called trans fats -- which have been linked to heart disease -- starting in 2010.

Other lifestyle bills died: one that would have allowed landlords to ban smoking in apartment buildings; one that would have required most cats and dogs to be spayed or neutered; and one that would have imposed a 25-cent fee on plastic grocery bags.

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