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California Legislature advances bills on food containers, cellphones in prisons

Reporting from Sacramento -- Restaurants in California would have to stop using food containers made of polystyrene foam under legislation approved Thursday by the state Senate to address environmental worries.

Lawmakers also moved forward with tougher penalties for those who smuggle or possess cellphones in state prisons and expanded a state ban on workplace smoking.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) proposed the prohibition on polystyrene containers, saying they do not decompose quickly and thus can linger for years in landfills, storm drains and ocean waters.

His bill, which goes to the Assembly, “would help protect the environment, create green jobs and save taxpayers millions of dollars in cleanup costs,” Lowenthal said.

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Most Republicans opposed his proposal out of concern that it would hurt businesses and drive up prices for consumers if more expensive alternative containers are required.

“This bill will limit consumer choice,” said Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto).

The California Restaurant Assn. and American Chemistry Council also oppose the measure. The foam is the best material for food packaging because it is inexpensive, lightweight and effective in keeping food warm or cold, the groups said.

Lowenthal received a bare-majority vote for his bill, SB 568, after agreeing to postpone the compliance date until 2016 for restaurants and 2017 for school districts.

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In contrast, there was unanimous support in the Senate for the cellphone legislation by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima).

He noted that the number of phones confiscated in California prisons has risen from fewer than 300 five years ago to more than 10,000 last year. Two have even been confiscated from Charles Manson.

“We know that inmates with cellphones are ordering murders, organizing escapes, facilitating drug deals, controlling street gangs and terrorizing rape victims,” Padilla said.

The measure would make smuggling cellphones into prison a misdemeanor, with a fine of up to $5,000. Inmates caught possessing a phone would lose good-behavior credits, potentially extending their sentences.

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Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) supported the measure, SB 26, even though he said the penalties were “inadequate” and the crime should be a felony.

The Senate also acted Thursday to widen the state’s smoke-free workplace laws by removing exemptions that allow smoking in certain areas of hotel lobbies, meeting and banquet rooms, warehouses, break rooms and at many businesses with five or fewer employees.

“Californians go to work to earn an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, not to breathe in toxic air,” said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), author of SB 575.

Backers of an Internet privacy measure, SB 242, again failed to win support for it amid strong opposition from Facebook, Twitter, Google and other companies.

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Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) had tried to require social networking sites to take down personal information when asked to do so by customers and to let parents demand that the companies remove personal information about their children.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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