SACRAMENTO – On its final day in session this year, California’s Legislature on Friday sent Gov. Jerry Brown a package of cost-cutting changes to the state’s pension systems that would require workers to pay more toward their benefits, raise the retirement age for new employees and plug loopholes that inflate monthly payments.
Lawmakers also passed bills that would provide a $55-million bailout for the Inglewood school district, give college students a break on textbook costs, protect tenants’ cats from declawing requirements and waive environmental rules for an overhaul of the emergency communication system serving Los Angeles County.
Working into the night, legislators sent the governor two measures that would extend tax credits for the film industry And they passed a bill to reduce expenses for businesses in the workers compensation program, SB 863 by Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles).
The marathon meetings in the Capitol took place in a carnival-like atmosphere as lobbyists clogged the hallways and huddled behind closed doors with lawmakers, seeking last-minute favors.
As the sun set, some lawmakers began prematurely celebrating the end of session by smoking cigars on the balcony.
Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) was unable to get Senate Republicans to join Democrats in voting for a measure that would have raised $1 billion to reduce tuition for some college students. The bill would have closed a tax loophole for out-of-state corporations, freeing up the money.
The proposal drawing the most fanfare was the 10-point pension plan approved on a bipartisan vote in each house. Brown, who touted the measure at a news conference this week even though it fell short of what he proposed months ago, has said he would sign it.
“I think it is a very significant step for California,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). “It actually changes the pension system going forward by requiring people to work longer before they get the maximum pension, recognizing that people are living longer.”
The package would require current employees to pay 50% of the cost of their pension and would limit to $110,000 the salary used to compute benefits, Steinberg noted. It would also require public employees who are not in public safety jobs to work until 67 to get full retirement benefits.
Most Republicans voted for the bill, AB 340, while saying it was but a small step forward. “Sadly it falls far short of the ‘historic’ reform promised by the governor,” said Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach).
In the days before the vote, the Democratic majority rejected the governor’s proposal to replace a portion of the current guaranteed benefit pension for new employees with a 401(k)-style plan.
Lawmakers also spent part of their last day trying to address the problem of runaway film production. They passed bills to add two years to tax credits for television and movie productions made in California, wrangling over the measures late into the night.
The credit, begun in 2009, is set to expire in July 2015. The extension would continue to provide $100 million a year in credits into 2017.
“The entertainment industry is one of the significant industries in California, and we can’t afford to have them go away from our state,” said Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark).
The bills are AB 2026 by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar) and SB 1197 by Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello).
The Legislature also moved to provide relief to college students burdened with big expenses for textbooks.
Lawmakers approved twin bills by Steinberg that would create a website where students could get free access to digital copies of textbooks used in 50 core classes, or buy a hard copy for $20. Many students are paying more than $1,000 a year for textbooks, Steinberg said, sometimes forcing them to choose between textbooks and food.
“This is a major step toward using technology to cut costs for students while enhancing the quality of higher education in California,” Steinberg said after the Legislature sent SB 1052 and SB 1053 to the governor.
The Legislature passed $55 million in emergency funding that would keep the Inglewood Unified School District operating. Severely declining enrollment and poor financial decisions by managers have brought the K-12 school district to the brink of bankruptcy, said Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood).
“The Inglewood district would be insolvent by December if we didn’t do this bill,” Wright said.
The measure, SB 533, would also have state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson assume the duties of the Inglewood school board and work with the county schools superintendent to appoint an administrator for day-to-day operations.
Another bill specific to Southern California sparked one of the more heated debates of the day.
Lawmakers approved a measure that would waive state environmental rules for a project to build a new emergency communication system in Los Angeles County. Part of the project would involve modernizing more than 300 radio towers and antennas used by police and fire agencies.
Some lawmakers objected to the annual end-of-session effort to exempt a favored project from the California Environmental Quality Act.
“This is not the right way to do it,” said Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego). But she voted for the bill.
Wright argued that the emergency communications project is important and worth the last-minute exemption contained in AB 1486. Going through the normal environmental review process could delay the project and put at risk $154 million in federal grants, the senator said.
“This is not a football stadium,” Wright told his fellow senators. “What we are talking about is an infrastructure that will facilitate the protection of the public.”
Lawmakers also gave final approval to a bill that would prohibit landlords from requiring tenants to declaw their cats or cut vocal cords in their dogs. Landlords could face a fine of $1,000 per violation under SB 1229 by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills).
Times staff writer Michael Mishak contributed to this report.