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Legislators Facing Crush of Measures in Session’s Final Hours

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s frenzy time. Deals are being struck or they are crumbling. And lawmakers are scrambling to put their bills to final votes.

When they convene today, lawmakers will have upward of 300 bills to consider and 72 hours to do it before they leave town for the year. So the frantic rush is on.

Lawmakers will cast final votes on bills dealing with everything from health care and the environment to gambling and gun control. There are bills to provide legal protection for gays, limit teenagers’ privilege to drive and make it easier for the San Fernando Valley to secede from the city of Los Angeles.

Perhaps the most significant measure would earmark more than $450 million in federal and state money to provide health care insurance for 600,000 children of low-income mothers and fathers.

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“The singularly most important issue to resolve this week is children’s health care,” said Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward). “That’s a big one. That’s a generational leap in improvements [and] expansion of health care to poor children in California.”

Under the plan, an otherwise uninsured family of four with an annual income of up to $32,100 would pay no more than $27 a month in premiums. Families with lower incomes would pay as little as $14 a month. Parents would pay $5 for visits to doctors and $5 for prescriptions.

The measure, which appears to have support from Gov. Pete Wilson, would be funded with $311 million in federal money and $167 million in state aid.

Beth Capell, who has been lobbying on the issue on behalf of the group Health Access, said that even with the bill, 6 million Californians, including poor adults, still will lack health coverage. She also fears that premiums and co-payments will limit the number of eligible people who will use the program.

Still, she said, “we’re delighted that hundreds of thousands of people will get covered.”

Some antiabortion Republicans may end up opposing the measure when it comes up for a vote in the Senate and Assembly because state money could be used for abortions for minors covered by the plan.

But Assembly GOP Leader Bill Leonard of San Bernardino said the plan has Republican support. “On its own and on its merits, sure, this will pass. Whether we have enough time to work out all the technical questions . . . I don’t know.”

Beyond health care, lawmakers are working on modest tax cuts, including a limit on state capital gains taxes for people who sell their homes, and a cut in tax rates for closely held corporations, many of which are small and family-owned.

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Additionally, lawmakers are trying to strike deals to provide more state money for county courts, to ask voters to approve $8 billion in school construction bonds, and to institute a statewide test for public school students, something Wilson wants.

However, each of the three measures is enmeshed in political feuds and differing views, prompting Lockyer and other legislative leaders to give them less than even odds of passage.

Lurking beneath the surface is the increasing likelihood that Wilson will make heavy use of his veto power, particularly if Democrats refuse to approve authority for a statewide test for all public school students in grades 2 through 11.

Some Democrats oppose Wilson’s testing idea because he is not requiring that new Spanish-speaking immigrants be tested in Spanish. Others insist that Wilson is rushing to implement a test--though he has been pushing for it since he took office seven years ago.

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Acrimony over this summer’s budget debacle adds to the possibility that Wilson will reject Democrats’ bills wholesale.

Although Wilson signed the budget into law in August, the governor vetoed one of the bills that implemented a part of the budget dealing with welfare. The veto came when Wilson saw that the Democrat-controlled Legislature inserted a single paragraph that would have given unemployment insurance and state disability insurance to illegal immigrants, something he opposes.

The main point of the lengthy bill, however, was to deny cost-of-living increases to elderly and disabled Californians who collect state aid.

Unless the bill is rewritten and submitted to the governor by week’s end, these residents will get a raise in their benefits. However, the raises will cost nearly $50 million, and that will leave an emergency reserve in California’s $68-billion budget of less than $75 million.

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The result: There’s almost no money for additional spending, and that would give Wilson ample justification to wield his veto pen.

“It’s not a threat. It’s a simple statement of fact,” said Sean Walsh, Wilson’s spokesman. “There are limited resources, so limited that we would have no choice” other than to veto bills that cost money.

The threat aside, lawmakers are pressing ahead with their bills. What follows is a look at some of them:

Environment

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The year started with lofty plans for environmental protection. The environmental agenda has shrunk considerably, particularly with regard to California’s 1,100-mile coast. Still, several measures will come up in the closing days.

Perhaps the most significant bill is one by Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia (D-Bell) to force state health agencies to gauge the health effects of pollutants on children. As it is now, the state looks at the impact of pollutants on healthy adults.

Escutia’s AB 287 also would increase air monitoring at schools and day-care facilities. Even if the bill wins final approval, its fate is uncertain when it reaches Wilson’s desk. The state Chamber of Commerce has placed it at the top of its hit list, calling it a “job killer.”

Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) wants the state Air Resources Board to identify health hazards from fine particulate matter and recommend measures to reduce the pollution. His bill (SB 1306) comes after federal action strengthening standards for fine particulates and directing states to devise ways to reduce their presence in the air.

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Cars and Drivers

Lawmakers are attempting to revise the new Smog Check program, with Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) seeking to exempt new cars from tests for four years.

Baugh’s effort is linked to measures by Escutia and Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) to provide state money to help low-income motorists pay for car repairs. A deal remains uncertain.

Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay) is carrying SB 1329, requiring that new teenage drivers must have a learner’s permit for six months before getting their licenses, rather than the current 30 days.

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Once they receive their first licenses, teenagers would have to wait another six months before they could drive late at night, or give rides to friends, unless a supervising adult is in the car.

Gay Rights

While some high-profile gay rights measures have failed, at least two bills remain alive. Migden is pushing AB 1059 to require that health insurance companies offer employers group policies that include benefits for domestic partners, including gay couples.

Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) has a bill (AB 257) to increase enforcement of anti-gay discrimination laws. It has stalled in the Assembly.

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Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) is carrying legislation that would allow judges to consider visitation rights for so-called de facto parents of a child after breakups of nontraditional families.

For example, a woman with a child from a previous marriage could begin living with a new partner who takes on the role of parent but later moves out. Under this bill, the partner could ask a court to grant visitation rights.

Guns and Crime

A measure to limit the manufacture and sale of cheap handguns won final approval Tuesday. But several measures remain, including one by Assemblyman Don Perata (D-Alameda) to toughen restrictions on semiautomatic assault weapons (AB 23).

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Another pending measure, AB 991 by Assemblyman Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco), would require gun owners moving into California to register their handguns with the Department of Justice.

A bill that sought to greatly increase prison sentences for criminals who carry or use guns in the commission of crimes was watered down by a Senate committee Tuesday. The bill is being pushed by initiative promoter Mike Reynolds, the author of the three-strikes sentencing measure in 1994. He is considering a new initiative for next year’s ballot.

Times staff writers Jenifer Warren, Max Vanzi and Carl Ingram contributed to this story.


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