California lawmakers act on flurry of new bills


Californians would no longer get plastic bags at supermarket check-out stands, and many children would have to wait longer to enter kindergarten under proposals advanced Wednesday by state lawmakers.

Other bills among the nearly 200 that legislators acted on would put the brakes on future fee increases at state universities and release on medical parole dozens of prison inmates who are physically incapacitated.

Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday signed into law a measure banning violent felons from owning body armor, such as the bullet-proof padding used by two bank robbers in the infamous 1997 North Hollywood shootout with the Los Angeles Police Department.

“Violent felons wearing body armor pose a dangerous threat to our communities and especially to our men and women in law enforcement,” Schwarzenegger said.

An appeals court last year overturned a similar law enacted a year after the North Hollywood incident; it was ruled too vague. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) wrote the new law, SB 408.

The hottest debate Wednesday was in the state Assembly, which voted 41 to 27 to pass a bill that would ban single-use plastic grocery bags — the first of its kind in the nation, according to lawmakers and environmentalists. Shoppers would have to bring reusable bags to the store or pay at least 5 cents each for recycled paper bags at the checkout counter.

Schwarzenegger has indicated that he would sign the bill, AB 1998 by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), if it passes the Senate as expected.

Environmentalists say the single-use bags endanger marine life and are more likely to foul beaches than any other form of pollution. Californians use 19 billion such bags a year, or 552 per person, according to an Assembly analysis. The measure was sponsored by Santa Monica group Heal the Bay. Opposition comes largely from the plastics industry.

Cities including San Francisco, Palo Alto, Malibu and others across the country have already instituted such bans. “It’s easier to have a statewide ban than it is to have to figure out how to operate city to city,” said Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D- Los Angeles).

The California Grocers Assn. has endorsed the ban.

“It doesn’t surprise me that certain elements of big business have removed their opposition,” said Assemblyman and U.S. Senate candidate Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine), an opponent of the bill, alluding to the fee shoppers would have to pay for recycled bags. “As long as they don’t get gouged, they’re more than happy to dump the consumer under the bus.”

The issue of when children should enter kindergarten was less controversial. The Senate voted 28 to 4 for a measure that would increase the minimum age of those admitted to kindergarten, phased in over three years, starting in 2012. Youngsters would have to turn 5 by Sept. 1 of the school year they start, rather than by the current Dec. 2 cutoff.

The change would affect 100,000 children. Proponents of the legislation say half of the $700 million in projected savings would benefit those children through expanded public preschool programs.

“Both the research and our classroom teachers are telling us that California kids are starting kindergarten too young,” said Sen. Joe Simitian (D- Palo Alto), author of SB 1381.

The measure, which next goes to the state Assembly, is opposed by the California Teachers Assn.

“The current state preschool program is not accessible to all children, and we do not believe it is appropriate to displace students without access to preschool,” the teachers group said in a statement.

Lawmakers also acted Wednesday in response to student protests over 32% fee increases approved last year by the California State University system.

The Senate approved a proposal to limit future fee increases at CSU to the percentage change in the per capita income of Californians and to prohibit increases from taking effect until six months after they are adopted.

The goal of SB 969, according to Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada-Flintridge), is to make fee increases “gradual, moderate and predictable” so that students and their families can better plan college finances.

The Senate also sent the Assembly a measure that would grant parole to dozens of state prison inmates who are comatose or otherwise physically incapacitated, to save $200 million annually.

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said his bill would allow the state parole board to put prisoners on supervised parole if they determine that the person is both incapacitated and no risk to public safety.

“Currently we have dozens and dozens of comatose inmates in … specialty care facilities with armed guards on each side of the bed 24/7,” Leno said. “This is a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

The measure, SB 1399 was opposed by Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Tom Harman of Huntington Beach.

“I don’t think we should be letting people out of prison for anything,” said Harman, who is running for state attorney general.