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New Laws Cover Wide Range of Subjects

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In 2002, state lawmakers introduced 2,554 bills and resolutions. Of those, 1,116 died in the Legislature. The governor signed 1,173 measures, vetoed 264 and allowed one to become law without his signature. Here are highlights of those actions, by subject.

Abortion

Davis and the Legislature enacted a law that aims to preserve the right to an abortion in California even if federal rights are weakened. The “Reproductive Privacy Act” makes the state’s scattered statutes referring to abortion consistent with the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision.

The governor also signed bills to keep abortion clinic workers’ addresses private, guarantee sexual assault victims access to emergency contraception and make it a crime to threaten or attack abortion clinics. A fifth new law reinforces a requirement that obstetrics and gynecology training programs teach students how to perform an abortion. Students may opt out on religious or ethical grounds.

Consumers

The Legislature and governor toughened restrictions on the payday loan industry.

Typically, these loans are a short-term advance in which a borrower writes a check for $100 to $300. It is held by the lender and not cashed until the borrower’s next payday. However, substantial charges and fees and high interest rates can be imposed, which, critics argue, keep the borrower in debt for long periods.

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Effective Jan. 1, payday loan companies will be regulated by the Department of Corporations in the same way other financial institutions are regulated. Additional restrictions will be imposed, including prohibiting a charge for merely opening an account. Also, the industry will pay substantially higher regulatory fees.

A new law will require calling-card companies to disclose certain hidden charges and fees and will require that consumer information be printed in languages other than English.

One key bill would have required financial institutions to get consent before disclosing a consumer’s private information to other enterprises, including affiliates.

The bill, fought by major national businesses, was passed by the Senate but so weakened in the Assembly that the author, Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), killed it.

Crime

As an offshoot of the Rampart police scandal, a new law will require that a felon sentenced to death or life without parole can get access to evidence that may have been false.

The legislation was introduced in response to Los Angeles cases in which convicted felons were voluntarily freed by the district attorney and courts because their convictions depended heavily on the testimony of law enforcement officers that turned out to be false.

For inmates in custody, habeas corpus procedures have long been of assistance. But until now, there was no remedy in California law that enabled someone who had been freed to return to court and seek to reverse a fraudulent conviction.

Amid concerns over terrorism, the Legislature also approved and Davis signed a bill that extends until 2008 the state law authorizing law enforcement to place wiretaps on telephones and other communication devices.

Education

Unlike in recent sessions in which the Legislature and governor enacted major education initiatives, lawmakers in 2002 generally preferred to fine-tune earlier reforms. However, the year was not without controversy.

The California Teachers Assn.'s top-priority bill would have created “academic partnerships” between teachers unions and school district officials to make decisions jointly on the operation of public schools. The bill also proposed giving the unions a voice in the selection of textbooks and other instructional materials, a provision that critics, including Davis, said went too far.

The bill was stopped in its tracks in the Assembly when the governor warned that he would veto it. The Legislature undertook a major reform of the charter schools system, clamping new fiscal accountability standards on such schools, which can operate outside the statutory and regulatory systems required of regular public schools.

Supporters of the bill said the need for tighter standards for charter schools was dramatized by operations at Gateway Charter Academy, which ran multiple satellite campuses far from its Fresno headquarters.

Gateway’s charter was revoked when education authorities discovered that the recently opened school had piled up $1 million in debts in a single year, hired employees with criminal records and recruited teachers without credentials.

The new law will establish tighter fiscal controls, including the requirement that charter schools each year file a financial statement to the officials who approved its charter. In applying for a charter, such schools also will be required to detail how they intend to keep parents informed of the transferability of courses and whether the courses meet college eligibility requirements.

Energy

Private utilities must increase by 1% a year the share of electricity they sell that comes from the sun, wind and geothermal heat. The ultimate goal is to reach 20% from such sources by 2017 under a law enacted by Davis.

Public utilities such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power can set their own targets.

The private utilities may tap a $135-million fund to offset the cost of the “green” power, which tends to be more expensive than that produced by burning natural gas. The subsidy comes from a charge that amounts to roughly $2 a month for the average residential utility customer.

The governor also enacted legislation to make it easier for private utilities to sign long-term electricity contracts. A lack of such contracts worsened the electricity crisis of 2000-01. When power prices rose, the utilities were forced to buy from the costly spot market. The new law aims to return Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric--by the end of this year--to their historic task of buying electricity.

Environment

Davis won national and worldwide attention when he signed a bill requiring the Air Resources Board to set limits on car and truck tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, for the first time.

Resisted mightily by the auto industry, the new law requires vehicles sold in California starting in 2009 to achieve a “maximum feasible reduction” in emission of gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. Proponents say that technology to reduce such emissions already exists and that the law will result in more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

The governor also acted to prevent the expiration of hundreds of offers by private landowners to provide public access to California’s 1,100-mile coast. Many offers are nearing the end of their 21-year terms. The Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, must accept the offers.

Another new law requires state regulators to solicit the input of low-income and minority communities when they decide where to locate future landfills.

Davis vetoed a bill that would have imposed a $10 tax on televisions and computer monitors to pay for recycling and public education programs. Each monitor contains several pounds of lead and other potentially toxic materials and cannot legally be disposed of in landfills. In a veto message, Davis urged electronic equipment makers to devise recycling solutions.

Gay Rights

Davis signed into law a measure that gives gays who lose a domestic partner the same inheritance rights as married heterosexuals who lose a spouse. But he vetoed a bill that would have banned discrimination against gay youths in foster care and required gay and lesbian sensitivity training for foster parents.

Health

Davis challenged the Bush administration with a new law that encourages stem-cell research in California.

Scientists say the cells, which can divide and become any kind of cell in the body, may hold the cure to such diseases as Parkinson’s and cancer. But anti-abortion groups oppose stem-cell research because it involves the destruction of a human embryo. President Bush has restricted federal funding for stem-cell research, and the issue divides Congress.

While several state legislatures have banned research involving human embryos, California is the first to encourage it. The governor also enacted a law that allows judges, after a hearing, to order the treatment of seriously mentally ill people against their will. Backers called it “Laura’s law,” after a 19-year-old Nevada County woman killed by a man whose mental illness had gone untreated.

Before people can be forced into treatment, a judge must find that they have histories of failing to comply with treatment and have demonstrated “serious violent” behavior against others or themselves.

Davis vetoed a bill that would have allowed adults to buy hypodermic needles without a prescription. Proponents said the bill would have limited the spread of disease among drug users, but the governor said it would have undermined official needle exchange programs.

Other new health laws require health-care providers to give patients appointments and referrals in a timely manner and ban health insurers from forcing doctors to take on more patients than they can reasonably handle.

Insurance

The governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed automobile insurers to offer discounts to customers who have continuously purchased coverage. Those ineligible for the discount would have paid higher rates. Sponsored by Mercury Insurance Group of Los Angeles, which has contributed to most members of the Legislature, the bill would have reversed a decision by Insurance Commissioner Harry Low.

Tens of thousands of poor people in San Francisco and Los Angeles counties will qualify for discount automobile insurance under a new law. The expansion of the discount program reduces the cost of a policy from $450 to $347 a year in Los Angeles.

Transportation

The governor signed a law to let voters decide in 2004 whether to spend $9.9 billion building a bullet train that would whisk riders between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours.

He also enacted legislation to allow the Orange County Transportation Authority to buy 10 miles of privately owned express lanes on the Riverside Freeway between Anaheim and Corona. The new law clears the way for $1.6 billion in upgrades to the highway. It ends a toll-road experiment in which the California Department of Transportation gave a private company the power to veto improvements along a 30-mile stretch of the freeway until 2030.


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