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Legislators Go to Bat for Consumers : Sacramento: From auto safety to cloth diapers, the bills are having their greatest success in years. Lawmakers cite increased pressure from the public.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Legislation designed to benefit consumers on a host of topics--from minivan safety to cloth diapers to Small Claims Court actions--is meeting with its greatest success in the Legislature in recent years.

In the closing weeks of the Legislature’s 1989-90 session, lawmakers have approved dozens of bills to curb the abuse of personal credit information, require banks to beef up security at automatic teller machines and prevent the accidental poisoning of children by toxic household products.

And in a significant departure from the past, the Legislature approved a bill that provides prison terms for employers and supervisors who knowingly expose consumers or workers to hazardous conditions.

While the Legislature is still stymied on such major issues as auto insurance and health insurance, advocates for consumer groups are pleased with the success rate for bills of a moderate scale that could benefit large segments of the public.

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“I’m not a Pollyanna by nature, but I do think things are better,” said Harry Snyder, a Consumers Union lobbyist who has been pushing legislators for years to pass such measures. “I think legislators are fed up with not accomplishing stuff. . . . They are tired of being treated like potted palms by the special interests.”

The surge in consumer actions comes at a time when legislators have been battered by accusations that they serve special-interest campaign contributors at the expense of the public. The influence of special-interest lobbyists has been highlighted this month by the corruption trial of former Sen. Paul Carpenter taking place in federal court three blocks from the Capitol.

The push for consumer protections also comes during an election year in which 92 of the 120 members of the Legislature are up for reelection and a new governor will be chosen.

But legislators themselves discount the importance of election-year politics or their image problems. They say that consumer interest has intensified in the Legislature because of increased pressure from the public, heightened sensitivity among business leaders and a growing awareness among lawmakers.

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“Partly it’s tied in to the environmental movement,” said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar). “The public is more conscious about what they buy from a toxic standpoint, from a recycling standpoint and also from a safety standpoint. That increased pressure from the public puts more pressure on the Legislature to pass consumer-oriented bills.”

Among the consumer measures sent to Gov. George Deukmejian in recent weeks was a measure by Katz that would require manufacturers of toxic household products--such as antifreeze, insecticides or cleaners--to use child-proof containers or add chemical agents to make them taste bitter. More than 130,000 poisonings occur in California every year, most of them involving children under the age of 6, Katz said in pushing for the measure.

Also awaiting action by the governor is a bill by Assemblyman Johan Klehs (D-Castro Valley) that would require automobile dealers to notify buyers whether new minivans comply with federal safety standards. Under federal law, minivans do not have to meet the same crash-protection standards as other passenger vehicles.

The Legislature has also sent to Deukmejian a measure by Sen. Charles Calderon (D--Whittier) that would require banks to provide adequate lighting and other security features to prevent assaults on customers using automatic teller machines.

In an attempt to reduce accidents caused by automatic garage door openers, the Legislature passed a bill by Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) that would establish minimum safety standards for the devices. At least 44 children have been killed nationwide--including six in California--by automatic garage door openers since 1982, Polanco said.

And Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) won passage of a bill that would require all office computer terminals to conform to national safety and ergonomic design standards. Injuries and stress complaints related to computer use constitute the fastest growing category of employee disability claims, Hayden said.

However, among the most significant consumer measures approved by the Legislature this year are bills that would impose penalties on corporations and employers.

One bill by Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Los Angeles) would make it a crime for a corporation or manager to knowingly conceal a dangerous product or business practice from consumers, employees or regulatory agencies. The measure provides up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000 for a manager convicted under the law.

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A bill by Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-San Mateo) would increase the limit on Small Claims Court awards from $2,000 to $5,000. At the same time, it would place a limit of two cases per year involving any claim over $2,500, thus restricting the ability of businesses to use the Small Claims system for recovering debts.

In some cases, consumer-oriented legislation has fared well this year because it addresses environmental issues such as air pollution and recycling.

One such measure by Sen. Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) would require child care facilities to give parents a choice of using cloth diapers instead of the disposable plastic diapers that cannot be recycled.

A bill by Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) would give a sales tax break to buyers of low-polluting automobiles while boosting the tax on high-polluting vehicles. A consumer could save as much as $700 when buying a low-polluting, medium-priced model, according to Hart.

In an attempt to protect the public from credit abuses, the Legislature has sent a number of measures to the governor.

One bill by Assemblyman Rusty Areias (D-Los Banos) would prohibit merchants from requiring customers to write their telephone numbers or home addresses on credit card slips. This information is sometimes resold to telephone solicitors.

Another bill by Areias would prohibit merchants from requiring customers to disclose their credit card numbers on the back of personal checks. In some cases, the information has been used illegally to charge purchases to credit card holders.

“Corporate leaders are becoming much more sensitive to their public image,” said Areias in explaining why his measures succeeded. “They are aware of the increasing concern by the general public as it relates to consumer protection issues.”

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It is uncertain which of all these consumer-related bills the governor will sign. Some bills, such as the measures that increase penalties for businessmen and require new standards for computer terminals, are strongly opposed by business groups who often have the Republican governor’s ear.

But earlier this year, Deukmejian signed a variety of consumer bills including measures to curb telephone harassment, prohibit the mail-order sale of hearing aids by unlicensed distributors and require retailers who refuse to give refunds or exchanges to disclose their policy in advance.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown predicted that consumer legislation will win even broader support in the future. “The level of interest is going to increase and you’re going to see every member having some bill he or she calls a consumer bill,” the San Francisco Democrat said.


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