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New California law expands carpool lane use

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a measure Monday allowing tens of thousands more Californians with environmentally friendly cars to drive solo in carpool lanes, while state lawmakers moved closer to approving reforms inspired by the eye-popping salaries of Bell city officials.

Among the measures meant to crack down on abuse of public trust by government officials are three bills passed by the Senate that would limit how quickly local leaders can raise their own salaries, put a cap on their pensions and refund excess property taxes charged to Bell residents.

Earlier this year, Times reporting revealed that some top officials in Bell — a small working-class city in southeast Los Angeles County — were receiving staggering salaries. The city manager was making nearly $800,000 a year, almost twice the pay of President Obama.

“What happened in Bell was illegal and these [property tax] overcharges need to be refunded to my constituents immediately,” said Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello). The Senate voted unanimously to approve AB 900 by Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) and would allow the return of $2.9 million in property taxes to Bell residents.

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The bill is expected to pass easily in the Assembly on Tuesday before heading to the governor’s desk.

The Senate also approved AB 827, a Bell-inspired bill by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, (D-South Gate), which would ban employment contracts for public officials with built-in pay raises that exceed the cost of living index. The upper house also passed AB 194, by Alberto Torrico (D-Newark), which would limit the salary that public pensions can be based on in California to 125% of the governor’s salary.

As lawmakers worked late into the night Monday, the second to last day of the 2009-10 legislative session, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took some action of his own, signing into law a measure expanding the list of environmentally friendly cars that qualify for permits to use carpool lanes.

The measure will allow up to 40,000 more California motorists to drive solo in the special lanes. It also extends the lifespan of existing permits for hybrid and electric vehicles. The bill, SB 535 by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and sponsored by General Motors, would provide thousands of permits for new models of fuel-efficient cars, including G.M.'s Chevrolet Volt, due out later this year, as well as the new Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf.

The measure, which now includes plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell cars, was opposed by some lawmakers who say carpool lanes are getting too congested because of all the special permits for solo drivers. But Yee said his bill was needed because new cars are being built with technology that was not available when the state began permitting fuel-efficient cars to use carpool lanes.

Earlier on Monday, the Senate passed and sent the governor a measure that seeks to pressure corporations to help reduce human trafficking. Large firms would have to disclose on a website what, if anything, they are doing to make sure their suppliers in the U.S. and abroad do not engage in forced labor.

The measure, SB 657 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), would apply to retail and manufacturing firms doing business in California with more than $100 million in gross receipts.

Some business groups opposed the measure, saying they don’t know what some vendors may be doing overseas. Steinberg countered that there is value in shining a light on the problem, estimating there are more than 12 million people who work in some form of forced labor worldwide and that California is among the top destinations of victims of human trafficking.

“A company can say it does nothing and be in full compliance with the bill,” Steinberg said.

Also on its way to the governor’s desk is a bill that would significantly increase penalties for sexual predators, including life in prison without parole for a first offense involving an attack on a child.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher (R-San Diego) introduced AB 1844 after the February rape and murder of 17-year-old San Diego high school student Chelsea King by a man who was on parole after serving five years in prison for molesting a 13-year-old girl.

John Arnold Gardner III pleaded guilty to King’s murder and led police to the remains of 14-year-old Amber Dubois, another San Diego teen he confessed to raping and murdering earlier this year.

Schwarzenegger has said he would sign the bill, known as Chelsea’s Law.

Passed by both houses, but needing consideration by the Senate one more time, is a measure that would allow prison officials to parole extremely sick inmates, a move that would pass the cost of their medical care on to the federal Medicare program, saving the state an estimated $42 million per year.

The bill, SB 1399 by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), would apply only to inmates judged by a doctor to be permanently medically incapacitated. “We’re paying prison guards, two of them, to overlook prisoners who are on a respirator,” said Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier).

Opponents warned that the measure was written too broadly and could lead overzealous prison administrators to release inmates purely to cut costs. “Do we trust the department not to use this as a budget management tool to the widest extent possible?” asked Assemblyman Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills).

The measure passed the Assembly 42 to 28 on Monday.

Reacting to a continuing “pay-to-play” scandal at the nation’s biggest pension fund, the Senate passed a measure to require so-called placement agents to register as lobbyists under the state’s Political Reform Act.

The regulation would outlaw huge fees for private investment managers with the California Public Employees Retirement System and other public pension funds. The bill, AB 1743 by Assemblyman Edward Hernandez (D-West Covina), is expected to garner a needed two-thirds vote from the Assembly and be sent to the governor for a signature or veto.

State lawmakers also tentatively approved legislation on several health insurance matters, including a bill requiring health insurers to submit rate increases for independent review. But lawmakers were still weighing an even stronger measure — one that would give regulators authority to reject rate hikes deemed too high.

Acting on a plan by Schwarzenegger, the Assembly approved a measure to subject rate increases to evaluation by an independent actuary — in the same way that Anthem Blue Cross rates were scrutinized earlier this year and found to have major math errors that led to their cancellation. The bill, SB 1163, must return to the Senate for a final vote Tuesday.

Consumer health advocates applauded the move.

“This bill will require insurers to disclose their actuarial data and assumptions, to see if they can stand the light of day,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of the consumer group Health Access California.

The Assembly also approved legislation that would set basic benefit levels for health insurance, giving consumers better information to evaluate coverage. That bill, SB 890, also must return to the Senate for a final vote.

The Senate, meanwhile, approved a measure that would bar insurers from canceling the coverage of sick policyholders unless they can show that customers lied about their health conditions. That bill, AB 2470, must go back to the Assembly for a final vote.

Last week, the Legislature approved an initial round of healthcare bills, including two that would create a new health insurance exchange so California consumers can compare and buy insurance policies once the new federal healthcare law takes effect in 2014. Schwarzenegger is expected to sign the bills.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Times staff writers Anthony York, Duke Helfand and Marc Lifsher contributed to this report.


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