Lawmakers’ Fall Session Is Sure to Be Divisive : Government: State legislators will deal with their political futures as they redraw districts. Also, bills on homosexual rights, foresting and insurance will be on the agenda.
State lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday with one eye on their political futures and the other on a bushel of divisive issues sure to spark lobbying battles among the state’s major economic interests.
The annual end-of-session sprint, in which legislators consider and pass hundreds of bills in a few frenzied weeks, will be highlighted this year by the once-a-decade task of drawing new district lines for the Legislature, Congress and the State Board of Equalization.
Also on the agenda is a bill to ban discrimination against homosexuals in housing and employment, a measure to preserve the state’s oldest forests, legislation on automobile and health insurance, and several bills that would repeal parts of Gov. Pete Wilson’s recently approved state budget package.
The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn the first year of its two-year session Sept. 13.
“They have a full plate awaiting them,” said Franz Wisner, a spokesman for Wilson, who is still waiting for the Legislature to act on many of his so-called “preventive government” proposals.
Most prominent on that plate is the drawing of new district lines, a job that falls to the Legislature every 10 years after completion of the U.S. Census. To become law, the new districts must be included in bills passed by both houses of the Legislature and signed by the governor. The Legislature could override a governor’s veto with a two-thirds vote.
This year, because the state’s population has grown faster than in other states, California is getting seven new seats in Congress--bringing the total to 52. The boundaries of the 80 Assembly and 40 state Senate districts must be adjusted to account for the shift in population since 1980 from urban areas to the suburbs and beyond.
“Reapportionment is the whole ballgame,” said Assemblyman Bill Jones of Fresno, the new leader of the Republicans in the lower house. “This is what it’s all about. The political landscape in California will be shaped in no small part by that for the next 10 to 20 years.”
Depending on how they are drawn, the new maps could result in the election of more Republicans to Congress and the Legislature. That is because more voters have registered Republican than Democrat in the past 10 years. Today, the GOP is outnumbered 26 to 19 in the state’s congressional delegation and 47 to 31 in the Assembly, where there are two vacancies. The Senate has 26 Democrats, 13 Republicans and an Independent.
Another possible consequence could be an increase in the number of minorities, particularly Latinos, in elective office. The census showed that Latinos now constitute about 26% of the state’s population, but number only 10 among the 165 members of the Legislature and Congress.
Already, legislative staff members reportedly have drawn tentative district lines and are preparing to circulate them to members to see what adjustments must be made before the plans can win passage with a majority vote in the Legislature.
In an unprecedented maneuver, Wilson has appointed a separate, bipartisan citizens panel to develop an independent set of maps that he says he will use to judge the fairness of the Legislature’s product. If he vetoes the Legislature’s plans and the issue moves to the state Supreme Court, the governor said, he will urge the court to adopt the maps drawn by the panel he appointed.
Although Wilson has asked the Legislature to complete the new districts by Sept. 3, that seems unlikely. Lawmakers are aiming to finish the job by Sept. 13, but even that date may be optimistic. If the Legislature succeeds in a legal effort to obtain adjusted census figures--which would add more than 1 million people to the state’s population--the map drawers would have to start anew and the process could be set back another month, requiring a special session of the Legislature.
A federal court judge last week ordered the Census Bureau to turn over the adjusted numbers, but an appeals court stayed the decision until Monday. Republicans, including the governor, have vowed to resist any delay. If new districts are not drawn in time for the 1992 elections, the process would be thrown to the courts. They could order legislative races to be run in the old districts, which favor Democrats, or in districts passed by the Legislature and vetoed by the governor.
When they are not drawing or reviewing the maps that will determine the shape of their districts, lawmakers will be considering several major policy issues. The Senate will have before it a controversial measure to add sexual orientation to the list of categories protected by the state Fair Employment and Housing Act. Already prohibited is discrimination based on race, religion, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical handicap, medical condition, marital status, sex and age.
The bill was passed by the Assembly 42 to 28 and is scheduled for a hearing Monday in the Senate Appropriations Committee. The committee appears evenly split, with two members undecided.
The legislation is similar to a bill passed by the Legislature in 1984 and vetoed by then Gov. George Deukmejian. But Wilson has said he might sign the measure, which is anathema to conservative Republicans.
Hearings also are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday on major legislation that would affect the state’s logging industry. At issue is the so-called “Sierra Accord"--reached by some environmental groups and some timber companies--and 98 amendments to the accord proposed by the Wilson Administration.
The goal of the negotiations is to prevent the destruction of the state’s forests while allowing the logging industry to continue as a viable business. Some contend that this can be done by limiting clear-cutting, in which whole segments of forests are cleared of trees, and by requiring timber companies to replant enough trees to sustain the life of the forests as older trees are cut down.
Also on the agenda will be two major insurance issues that have vexed lawmakers for years--coverage on health and automobiles.
On health insurance, lawmakers have all but given up hope of reaching agreement this year on major legislation to provide insurance for the 6 million Californians who lack basic medical coverage. There will be an attempt to enact important changes in the insurance laws to make coverage more affordable for small businesses.
Although they favor different approaches, Democratic and Republican legislators agree that small firms should be grouped together by insurers in a way that would spread their risks over a larger number of employees, in effect treating a group of small companies as if it were one major firm. This is intended to end or minimize the insurance companies’ practice of dramatically raising rates or canceling coverage for a small firm when one of its employees is afflicted with a major illness.
On automobile insurance, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) may attempt to enact legislation to create a basic, affordable policy for low-income drivers that would be subsidized by more affluent motorists.
That task will be complicated politically by the fact that Brown was instrumental in engineering the defeat this year of a rival bill backed by the governor. That measure would have created a no-fault system under which accident victims would be compensated by their own insurance companies without regard to who was at fault. The accident victims in turn would be prohibited in most cases from suing the other drivers involved in the crash.
Also pending are several pieces of Wilson’s preventive government package--legislation designed to limit unwanted pregnancies and drug abuse and to keep children in school and help them excel. The governor contends that the proposals, if enacted, will begin to check the state’s soaring welfare, Medi-Cal and prison caseloads and bring the cost of these programs under control.
In addition, several pieces of Wilson’s $55.7-billion budget package, passed in July, are under fire and will be targets of repeal efforts.
Among the proposals will be one to restore the renters’ tax credit to all tenants--the budget package limited it to single renters earning $20,500 and couples making $41,000. There may be an attempt to repeal the so-called snack tax, which extended the sales tax to candy and snack foods and has been almost universally deplored by grocery store owners and sweet-toothed taxpayers.
Another target will be the new sales tax on newspapers. There is a move afoot to exempt free papers, which have complained that they could be put out of business if forced to pay the tax. These papers would have a tax levied on their printing costs--the final stage of production--because there is no retail sale to tax.
Lawmakers also will consider railroad safety issues, in response to two recent derailments, and new ways to distribute the state’s water supply in the midst of a five-year drought. A measure to move up the date of California’s presidential primary also is in the hopper.