Reporting from Sacramento — The Fresh & Easy grocery chain has to fix what it calls a nonexistent problem, now that Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill banning the sale of alcoholic beverages at self-service checkout stands.
Brown, just before midnight Sunday, approved a proposal that forces the British-owned chain, with more than 125 stores in California, to shift from an all-automated format to one that has at least one clerk on hand to check a purchaser's age before ringing up sales of beer and wine.
The bill was one of 466 signed by the governor since the Legislature recessed for the year Sept. 9. He has vetoed 97 measures.
Among dozens of new business and labor laws were measures to extend a $100-million tax credit for the film industry for a year and to ban pre-employment credit checks in most circumstances.
He vetoed bills that would have forced Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and several big-box chains to conduct economic impact studies before building stores, and would have restricted bank fees on debit cards that employers use for wages.
The alcoholic beverage sales bill, AB 183, requires face-to-face interaction at Fresh & Easy and all other supermarkets to prevent sales to underage consumers. It was supported by law enforcement and groups that treat alcohol abuse.
"Underage drinking costs California taxpayers an estimated $8.1 billion annually," said the bill's author, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco). "AB 183 will help prevent alcohol from getting in young hands."
Fresh & Easy countered that it built in safeguards by using a combination of automated tellers and clerks to prevent sales to minors. Furthermore, executives noted, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control said it had no enforcement difficulties with self-service check-outs.
"There's a problem with making policy on issues like this when clearly the problem doesn't exist," said Fresh & Easy spokesman Brendan Wonnacott. "Now we have to fix it."
Brown's signature is a victory for the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The California Grocers Assn., the industry's trade group, accused the union of pushing for passage as a ploy to pressure Fresh & Easy to sign a union employment contract. The union denied the charge.
The union, however, lost a separate battle when Brown vetoed a measure that would have required big-box stores to pay for and conduct economic impact studies as part of the process of getting local government approvals to open a new location.
"Research continues to show that super centers cause business districts to suffer, significantly decrease the net number of jobs and often rely on taxpayer-funded government services … to provide healthcare for their employees," said the bill's author, Sen. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego).
In rejecting the bill, Brown wrote that "plenty of laws are already on the books that enable, and in some cases require, cities and counties to carefully assess whether these projects are in a community's best interests."
The governor also vetoed another union-sponsored bill, SB 931 by Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), that would have put restrictions on the fees that banks can charge when employers pay wages on debit cards instead of paper paychecks.
Brown said he recognized the potential for abuses with the cards but noted that the proposed legislation could have forced employers to go back to checks, in turn forcing workers to pay high check-cashing fees.
"I will work with the bill's proponents and the financial institutions to force a better solution that I can sign into law," Brown wrote in his veto message.
In another employment-related bill, the governor approved a ban on pre-employment credit checks in most circumstances. The measure, AB 22 by Assemblyman Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), continues to allow the checks for peace officers, managers, people who handle large amounts of money and employees with access to trade secrets.
On the tax front, Brown signed a bill that extended an existing $100-million tax credit for one year. The extension, however, fell considerably short of the five-year time frame that Hollywood studios and the unions had originally sought.
Opponents contended that tax credits don't create jobs and would have amounted to a giveaway when the state is laying off teachers and slashing social services. Those concerns led the credit to be slimmed down from its proposed five-year extension.
The bill's author, Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar), said he would introduce a related bill in January to continue a program that he said created 20,000 jobs and $4 billion in economic activity to date.