California Moves Into Uncharted Territory

Times Staff Writer

If you oppose global warming, favor stem cell research to find a potential cure for cancer or Alzheimer's disease, or agree that workers should be paid while on leave to care for sick children or parents, 2003 holds promise for you.

At midnight, bills to at least begin addressing what would be first-in-the-nation efforts in these areas became law, along with hundreds of other laws passed last year by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gray Davis.

Most became effective at the start of this new year, but the activation date of other bills will be postponed until 2004 or even later. Typically, delayed implementation gives the bureaucracy extra time to prepare and to install new programs that will affect the lives and pocketbooks of Californians.

In the 2002 session of the Legislature, lawmakers introduced 2,554 bills and resolutions. Of those reaching Davis, the governor signed 1,168, vetoed 264 and let one become law without his signature, his office said. Last year, he signed 948 bills and vetoed 169.

The consensus at the Capitol was that, compared with recent high-achievement sessions, this will be recorded as one of only moderate accomplishments, mostly because there was virtually no money to create new programs or to expand programs already on the books.

However, California did break new ground.

One bill that took effect today authorizes the use of human embryonic stem cells for research purposes, despite the national policy discouraging such research.

Supporters of the new law, written by state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), argue that potential discoveries from stem cells offer the best hope for saving lives by finding ways to prevent, treat and cure maladies including cancer, stroke, heart disease and Alzheimer's, and by repairing spinal cord injuries.

The law allows research using stem cells from any source, including human embryos, which is subject to approval by an institutional review board. In an action praised by opponents of abortion, President Bush imposed federal limitations on stem cell research in 2001, including restrictions on federal funds for grants.

Another bill makes California the only state to fight global warming by imposing restrictions on so-called greenhouse gases from automobile exhaust pipes, starting with the 2009 model year.

The measure was carried by first-term Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) on behalf of a coalition of conservation organizations. Car manufacturers and the oil industry spent millions of dollars in an all-out lobbying and public relations campaign to defeat it.

The statute directs the state Air Resources Board, normally an air quality regulator, to achieve a "maximum feasible reduction" standard for release of carbon dioxide, one of the most common greenhouse gases that waft into the atmosphere, form a heat trap and, most scientists believe, intensify global warming.

Backers of the bill agreed that, without a similar determined response from other states and nations, the California law would be largely symbolic. But Davis praised it as a demonstration that the state is acting to address the "greatest environmental challenge of the 21st century," much as it did years ago, when it ordered that lead be removed from gasoline.

Opponents of the global warming bill charged that it would hand to a nonelective board the authority to raise certain taxes, at least indirectly, and put certain vehicles, such as SUVs, off limits to California purchasers. Both claims were denounced as false by proponents.

Organized labor's biggest victory of the legislative year won't take effect until July 1, 2004. Beginning then, California workers will be paid as much as 55% of their normal wages when they take time off from work to care for sick children or other family members or to bond with new babies. Labor leaders predicted that the new California program would become a model for other states and for Congress.

As a temporary disability insurance benefit, the program will be financed entirely by employees through payroll withholding. A worker will be eligible to receive compensation for a maximum of six weeks over 12 months and must have a physician's consent before taking the leave. An employer can demand that a worker use two weeks of vacation before receiving the paid leave.

Employers opposed the bill by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), charging, among other things, that workers would abuse the program and that businesses would be financially damaged by having to train replacements for employees taking the paid leaves.

A second victory for labor in the Democratic-dominated Capitol occurred when the Legislature passed and Davis signed a controversial bill to give unionized agricultural laborers the power to demand mandatory mediation when contract talks with growers get hung up.

The legislation by Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) was sponsored by the United Farm Workers, the union founded by the late Cesar Chavez, which had lost much of its political muscle in the last two decades.

Farm employers with fewer than 25 workers are exempt from the new law.

Other bills also became law today, including these:

Tenants -- All tenants in California who have lived in their units for at least one year are entitled to 60-day notice to move. Previously, a 30-day notice was required.

AIDS treatment -- Qualified patients who are diagnosed as HIV-positive but are not disabled by AIDS will be eligible for treatment in the Medi-Cal health care program for low-income Californians. As a consequence, supporters of the program said, these people will receive needed care before they become even more ill with full-blown AIDS.

Real estate taxes -- People who sell any home in the state other than their primary residence must withhold 3.33% of the sales price and turn the money over to the Franchise Tax Board. Typically, sellers pay taxes on the gains from a sale when they file tax returns. Under the new law, the state will get the funds at the time of sale. Sellers who owe less than the funds withheld will get a refund later when they file their tax returns.

Civil rights -- In a preemptive move against the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court might overturn its landmark Roe vs. Wade abortion ruling, lawmakers and Davis wrote into the California statute books language virtually identical to that of the court decision. Backers said the theory behind the bill was that abortions could still be performed under state law, even if federal abortion statutes were nullified. The law also will empower certified physician's assistants and nurses to prescribe the "morning after" birth control medication.

Another new law will give homosexuals whose partners die the same inheritance rights as those long provided to surviving heterosexual spouses.

Payday loans -- A bill empowers the state Department of Corporations to regulate the payday loan industry, whose providers have been accused of imposing unreasonable fees and charges on short-term loans typically obtained by low-income Californians. The department will enforce new rules against such practices and charge payday loan companies higher fees to support the newly intensified enforcement program.

Unwanted solicitation -- Lawmakers voted to prohibit the sending of unsolicited e-mail, unless the sender provides a toll-free telephone number or prominently displays an e-mail address that will enable the recipient to respond and demand to be the recipient of no more junk e-mail. Senders that have an existing business or personal relationship with the recipient are exempt.

Davis and the Legislature also delayed until April 1 the start-up of a "do not call" registry of California telephone users whose numbers are off limits to unsolicited calls by telemarketers. Officials say the state program may duplicate a proposed federal program.

Veterans homes -- Sponsored by Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) and others, a package of bills authorizes construction over the next several years of veterans homes in West Los Angeles near the VA medical center and at unspecified sites in the Fresno, Redding, Saticoy (just east of Ventura) and Lancaster areas.

Uncooperative convicts -- Jailers and prison guards are authorized to use reasonable force to extract DNA saliva and blood samples from prisoners who refuse to submit them voluntarily. The specimens will be filed in a DNA database used to identify fugitive criminals and to solve cold cases.

Gun safety -- Buyers of pistols and revolvers are required to acquire handgun safety certificates as a condition of ownership. Certification requires a purchaser to demonstrate the safe handling of the firearm, pass a written test and provide a thumbprint and proof of residence. This change took effect today but was enacted in 2001.

'Son of Sam' -- A new law prevents convicted criminals from profiting at the expense of their victims by giving families of victims new powers to sue. The law is intended to replace a "Son of Sam" law declared unconstitutional last year by the state Supreme Court.

The new statute empowers families to sue for civil damages as long as 10 years from the day the felon is discharged from parole.

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