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State lawmakers are being urged to scale back the number of laws they propose

Among the 2,323 bills introduced by lawmakers this year are ones to revise the definition of olive oil and enact 'Spay Day' to encourage spaying of animals. But Gov. Jerry Brown and others say that's too many as the state grapples with fiscal crisis.

March 06, 2011|By Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times
  • This year, state Sen. Lois Wolk has proposed protecting consumers from blenders who peddle lower-quality oil as "extra virgin."
This year, state Sen. Lois Wolk has proposed protecting consumers from… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Reporting from Sacramento — In addition to addressing the state's $25-billion deficit this year, the Legislature is making time for some other less pressing matters: Caffeinated beer. Spaceships. How to properly describe a dog pound.

Proposals on those subjects are among the 2,323 bills lawmakers have introduced this year. Others would revise the definition of olive oil and regulate the reflectivity of pavement to help curb global warming. There's a measure to create a "Parks Make Life Better" month.

"Spay Day," a bid to encourage the spaying and neutering of pets, has already received two legislative analyses and one committee vote (it passed). And there's a bill to provide new tax credits for commercial space vehicles being developed in the Mojave Desert.

The number of measures lawmakers are considering is slightly less than average. In fact, the volume has been dropping since a cap was applied in the early 1990s. But Gov. Jerry Brown, good-government activists and even some legislators say there are still too many, especially as California mulls deep cuts in services and possibly more taxes in its effort to balance the budget.

Like his predecessor, Brown has asked the Legislature to rein in its zeal for new laws.

"I definitely think there are too many laws, just as there are probably too many regulations," Brown said. "… We have chosen over our whole history to increasingly resort to laws, to lawyers and to courts — and it's a heavy burden."

One lawmaker has introduced a bill calling for fewer bills.

Assemblyman Brian Nestande (R-Palm Desert) wants to restrict each Assembly member to 30 bills —10 fewer than now allowed. That could shelve as many as 800 bills a session.

"I'm sure each bill is important to each author," Nestande said, "but when you add it up, it's just too much.... It almost seems like some people are straining to have a bill."

Certainly California's lawmakers have produced pioneering legislation, including a landmark global warming law and the nation's first health insurance exchange. This year, they have proposed expanding renewable energy, streamlining business regulations and tackling government corruption. More than a dozen bills address issues raised by allegations of financial improprieties in the cities of Bell and Vernon.

But too many proposals are simply self-serving, said some observers. A bill can help a lawmaker make a name for himself or herself — and raise campaign cash — in a large institution where most key decisions are made by a handful of power players. And term limits create a sense of urgency.

"These legislators show up, they're not here for long and they want to do everything they ever thought of," said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant in Sacramento.

Stutzman was an advisor to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who chided lawmakers in 2009 for debating whether dairies should crop cow tails while the state paid its bills with IOUs in the absence of a budget. Lawmakers were also debating what really constituted honey and pomegranate juice and were creating a state blueberry commission.

This year, state Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) wants a stricter definition of olive oil. She says it would protect consumers from unscrupulous blenders who peddle lower-quality oil as "extra virgin" and charge premium prices.

"I believe that consumers deserve to have truth in labeling," Wolk said in a statement. "If it says extra virgin olive oil on the label, it should be extra virgin olive oil in the bottle."

Nomenclature is also important to Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher (R-San Diego), who has proposed that a dog pound be known in government terms as "an animal shelter." "Surrendered" — not unwanted — animals would be "humanely euthanized" rather than "killed" or "destroyed."

Fletcher said his measure, sponsored by the San Diego Humane Society, suggests a small tweak to state code and consumes little time.

"I think the focus should remain on job creation, government reform and balancing the budget, but the rest of the world doesn't stop," he said. "In a state as large and diverse as California, you have to do more than one thing at a time."

State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), who wants to ban caffeinated beer, agrees. He said reports about students turning up in emergency rooms in other states prompted his bill, which would outlaw drinks such as Four Loko, Joose and Tilt.

"Why wait for something to happen here before we act?"

Bob Hertzberg, a former Democratic Assembly speaker who now co-chairs the nonpartisan California Forward think tank, said the barrage of bills reinforces the state's image as an unfocused behemoth in a time of crisis.

During the energy crisis of 2000 and 2001, when rolling blackouts plagued the state, Hertzberg placed strict limits on bills and shut down entire committees. He corralled lawmakers into groups, he said, to focus on the energy meltdown, hoping to send a message to Wall Street that California was taking the crisis seriously.

"There's just too many bills," said Hertzberg, who recalled 140 duplicative measures in the Assembly during that session. "That undermines the moral authority of law."

This year, he said, the Legislature should devote itself to budgeting and oversight, leaving most other matters for later, after the state's books are balanced.

If the last lawmaking session is any indication, that won't happen soon. Legislative leaders vowed to crack down on superfluous bills. The rank-and-file revolted.

They created "Motorcycle Awareness Month" and "Cuss Free Week" and even tried to dislodge the state rock from its perch (that measure passed two committees and a Senate floor vote and then died).

michael.mishak@latimes.com

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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