Reporting from Sacramento —
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a measure Monday allowing tens of thousands more Californians with environmentally friendly cars to drive solo in carpool lanes, while state lawmakers moved closer to approving reforms inspired by the eye-popping salaries of Bell city officials.
Among the measures meant to crack down on abuse of public trust by government officials are three bills passed by the Senate that would limit how quickly local leaders can raise their own salaries, put a cap on their pensions and refund excess property taxes charged to Bell residents.
Earlier this year, Times reporting revealed that some top officials in Bell — a small working-class city in southeast Los Angeles County — were receiving staggering salaries. The city manager was making nearly $800,000 a year, almost twice the pay of President Obama.
"What happened in Bell was illegal and these [property tax] overcharges need to be refunded to my constituents immediately," said Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello). The Senate voted unanimously to approve AB 900 by Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) and would allow the return of $2.9 million in property taxes to Bell residents.
The bill is expected to pass easily in the Assembly on Tuesday before heading to the governor's desk.
The Senate also approved AB 827, a Bell-inspired bill by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, (D-South Gate), which would ban employment contracts for public officials with built-in pay raises that exceed the cost of living index. The upper house also passed AB 194, by Alberto Torrico (D-Newark), which would limit the salary that public pensions can be based on in California to 125% of the governor's salary.
As lawmakers worked late into the night Monday, the second to last day of the 2009-10 legislative session, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took some action of his own, signing into law a measure expanding the list of environmentally friendly cars that qualify for permits to use carpool lanes.
The measure will allow up to 40,000 more California motorists to drive solo in the special lanes. It also extends the lifespan of existing permits for hybrid and electric vehicles. The bill, SB 535 by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and sponsored by General Motors, would provide thousands of permits for new models of fuel-efficient cars, including G.M.'s Chevrolet Volt, due out later this year, as well as the new Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf.
The measure, which now includes plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell cars, was opposed by some lawmakers who say carpool lanes are getting too congested because of all the special permits for solo drivers. But Yee said his bill was needed because new cars are being built with technology that was not available when the state began permitting fuel-efficient cars to use carpool lanes.
Earlier on Monday, the Senate passed and sent the governor a measure that seeks to pressure corporations to help reduce human trafficking. Large firms would have to disclose on a website what, if anything, they are doing to make sure their suppliers in the U.S. and abroad do not engage in forced labor.
The measure, SB 657 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), would apply to retail and manufacturing firms doing business in California with more than $100 million in gross receipts.
Some business groups opposed the measure, saying they don't know what some vendors may be doing overseas. Steinberg countered that there is value in shining a light on the problem, estimating there are more than 12 million people who work in some form of forced labor worldwide and that California is among the top destinations of victims of human trafficking.
"A company can say it does nothing and be in full compliance with the bill," Steinberg said.
Also on its way to the governor's desk is a bill that would significantly increase penalties for sexual predators, including life in prison without parole for a first offense involving an attack on a child.
Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher (R-San Diego) introduced AB 1844 after the February rape and murder of 17-year-old San Diego high school student Chelsea King by a man who was on parole after serving five years in prison for molesting a 13-year-old girl.
John Arnold Gardner III pleaded guilty to King's murder and led police to the remains of 14-year-old Amber Dubois, another San Diego teen he confessed to raping and murdering earlier this year.
Schwarzenegger has said he would sign the bill, known as Chelsea's Law.
Passed by both houses, but needing consideration by the Senate one more time, is a measure that would allow prison officials to parole extremely sick inmates, a move that would pass the cost of their medical care on to the federal Medicare program, saving the state an estimated $42 million per year.