California legislators OK pay reforms inspired by Bell scandal


California lawmakers passed wide-ranging public compensation reforms inspired by the Bell municipal salary scandal in the waning hours of the 2010 legislative session, but a closely watched, first-in-the-nation ban on plastic grocery bags was defeated Tuesday night.

That measure, AB 1998, passed the Assembly in June and had the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but faced a withering and well-financed advertising and lobbying campaign from the plastic bag manufacturing industry.

“I think we missed a great opportunity,” said the measure’s author, Julia Brownley (D- Santa Monica), as the bill failed another Senate vote just before 11 p.m.

Among the Bell-related reforms lawmakers approved were AB 900 by Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D- Los Angeles), which would offer $2.9 million in property tax refunds to overcharged city residents, and a ban on automatic pay raises that exceed the cost of living index built into the contracts of local government officials.

Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D- South Gate), author of AB 827, said such automatic increases led to the “obscene” escalation in compensation for the Bell city manager, who wound up making nearly $800,000 to administer the small working-class city in southeast Los Angeles County.

Another De La Torre proposal, AB 1955, which would prevent city officials from issuing bonds if the state attorney general determined they were overpaid, appeared on its way to defeat in the Senate on Tuesday night.

Lawmakers also passed a measure that would put an end to so-called pension spiking, the practice by public employees who accrue years’ worth of sick time and vacation until the last year of their tenure so it boosts the pay used to calculate their retirement. State investigators are looking into the practice in Bell.

Last year, the Moraga-Orinda Fire District chief cashed in years’ worth of accumulated vacation days to raise his final salary from $185,000 to $241,000, thus spiking his pension, noted AB 1987’s author, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D- San Francisco).

The governor, who must sign each of the reforms to make them law, has not taken public positions on most of the Bell-related measures. He has until Sept. 30 to make his decisions. But Schwarzenegger had joined other Hollywood luminaries, including actresses Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Rosario Dawson, in support of the proposed ban on plastic shopping bags.

Supporters claimed that the bags, which are used for a few minutes of shopping but remain in the eco-system for centuries, are one of the biggest contributors to beach and ocean pollution.

Opponents, led by the plastics industry, called the measure a job killer.

Some cities have enacted such bans already; California’s would have been the first statewide ban in the nation.

In other closely watched measures, lawmakers came down hard on paparazzi and cut a deal with offshore oil drillers meant to fund environmental protection.

Photographers who drive recklessly in pursuit of celebrity photos, or who block sidewalks and create the sense of “false imprisonment,” will face stiff new penalties, including possible jail time, under a measure that gained final approval in the Assembly on Tuesday.

Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) wrote AB 2479 after hearing tales of paparazzi encounters from actresses Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, among others, and about high-speed car chases through Hollywood as multiple photographers compete for a celebrity image.

“It’s amazing that there haven’t been tragedies like what happened in France with Princess Diana,” Bass said, referring to the princess of Wales’ death in a high-speed crash after photographers followed her car through darkened Paris streets. Investigators said alcohol in Diana’s chauffeur’s blood contributed to the crash.

Opponents of the bill, including the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., described the measure as an affront to the 1st Amendment, noting that there are already legal penalties for reckless driving.

“All occupations come with certain hazards,” said Assemblyman Chris Norby (R- Fullerton), pointing out that farmworkers making $20,000 a year have to deal with heat and physical danger, and celebrities making $20,000 a day have to deal with photographers.

The bill passed 43 to 13 on its way to the governor’s desk.

Media companies suffered another defeat with final passage of a measure that seals the autopsy reports of slain children. State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta), author of SB 5, said it came in response to a flood of public records requests after the rapes and murders of San Diego area teenagers Chelsea King and Amber Dubois.

The two murders, by a man on parole after serving five years in prison for molesting a 13-year-old girl, also inspired Chelsea’s Law which, if signed by the governor as expected, will impose harsh new penalties for child molesters.

“There is simply no convincing public interest in the broadcasting of lurid autopsy documents that should prevail over the rights of a family to keep private the final, desperate moments of their child’s life,” said Hollingsworth. The measure goes to the governor’s desk.

In a rare measure backed by big oil and environmentalists, the Assembly gave final passage to the so-called Rigs to Reef bill, which allows oil companies to save hundreds of millions of dollars by leaving the pilings of offshore platforms in California’s coastal waters after the wells run dry.

The tops of the platforms will still have to be removed, but Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), author of AB 2503, said he hoped the underwater structures would become habitat for fish.

Many environmentalists opposed the original measure — which split the savings 50-50 between a state environmental fund and the platform owners — because they felt it was a giveaway to the oil companies. Under current law, the companies are on the hook for the costs of removing the entire rigs when they are decommissioned.

Amendments to the bill adjusted the split, giving the state 55% of the oil companies’ savings for rigs dismantled before 2017. California’s take rises to as much as 80% for rigs decommissioned after 2023.

In one of the few measures lawmakers agreed on this year that would raise revenues, travelers who rent cars could face higher fees at California airports.

Los Angeles International Airport officials pushed the measure, which would change the current $10 fixed fee to an adjustable fee that could go as high as $30, to help finance a new $700-million car rental terminal and a people mover.

Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D- Long Beach) wrote SB 1192, which would also apply the new fee structure to other airports around the state.

Times staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report.