California Lawmakers End Summer Break, West Virginia Okays Drought-Relief Money
By Sunny Kaplan, Staff Writer
After a monthlong summer recess, California lawmakers returned to Sacramento this week for the final four-week stretch of the legislative session.
Addressed in the first week back to work was a hate crimes bill, approved by a Senate committee, that would boost penalties for murders committed because of the victim's gender, sexual orientation or disability.
Also addressed in the first week back to work was legislation to ban the manufacture and sale of unsafe handguns, a bill to require seat belts on farm worker vans and a bill to revamp the state's child-support system.
The state Assembly on Thursday approved legislation to ban the manufacture and sale of unsafe handguns in California on a 43-to-26 vote. If passed, starting in 2001 handguns made in, sold in or imported into the state would have to meet certain consumer safety standards to ensure that they don't misfire. The bill is expected to win approval in the Senate and be signed into law by Davis. A similar bill was vetoed last year by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. California would become the second state in the nation, after Massachusetts, to impose consumer safety measures on gun manufacturers.
A bill to require seat belts on farm worker vans and tougher enforcement against violators won approval in a state Senate committee. The $1.75-million legislation, was approved by a 9 to 1 bipartisan vote, and later got the endorsement of Gov. Gray Davis, as a needed protection for "some of the hardest-working people in our society" whose lives "are put in jeopardy around harvest time."
Also on Thursday, the state Assembly gave final approval to legislation stripping district attorneys of control over California's child support program as part of a top-to-bottom reorganization. The measure, by Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl was approved without debate by a margin of 45-33, and now moves to Gov. Gray Davis, who told reporters he is nearing a decision to support the bill.
A Senate committee approved a hate-crimes bill on Tuesday that would boost penalties for murders committed because of the victims' gender, sexual orientation or disability.
Current law allows executions for murders committed because of the victim's race, color, regigion, ancestry or national origin.
An Assembly panel pulled the teeth from a bill that would have required older motorists to take frequent behind-the-wheel tests to get their drivers' licenses renewed, and the Senate sent Davis a bill that requires sex education textbooks to be medically accurate and free of bias.
Although State Senate and Assembly leaders insisted that a series of rifts with Gov. Davis would not hamper the momentum of hundreds of bills to be addressed before the legislature plans to adjourn Sept. 16, Democrats were angered when the governor released the outline of his HMO-reform plan to reporters at a late-afternoon briefing Wednesday afternoon before presenting it to them first.
"It would have been more productive if we had seen this before the press did," said Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles.
Davis said he would be willing to go along with the creation of a new state agency to regulate the health insurance industry, giving patients the right to appeal to an independent panel if denied treatment, and expedited reviews of patient complaints, including reducing from 60 to 30 days the time allotted for state regulators to settle grievances.
Davis also proposed allowing a patient to sue, but only if treatment recommended by a physician had been denied, delayed or modified, and the patient suffered "substantial harm," such as death or loss of a limb or bodily function.
He did not address the issue of whether to require insurers to provide certain new benefits, including birth control pills, mental health coverage, cancer screening tests and certain medications for diabetics.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the governor's version got a lukewarm reaction from Democrats in the Legislature and from patient and consumer advocates.
In other California legislative developments, a hate-crimes bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Wally Knox, cleared the Senate Public Safety Committee on a 4-0 vote. It would make the punishment for killing someone because of their gender, sexual orientation or because they were disabled would be life in prison without the possibility of parole. Currently the penalty is 25 years to life.
A bill that would have required drivers 75 and older to take vision, written and behind-the-wheel tests when they try to renew their licenses was amended by the Assembly Transportation Committee to remove any reference of age. Instead it would require the Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt testing regulations by next May to protect the public from at-risk drivers -- those with a "higher-than-average propensity" for causing or being involved in traffic collisions.
A bill headed to Gray's desk after being approved by the Senate requires that sex education textbooks and materials used in California public schools be medically accurate and free from bias. The bills sponsor, Assemblyman Jim Cunneen, says that some districts have been using materials relating to AIDS that is not medically correct and includes racial and gender biases.
West Virginia legislators didn't waste any time getting down to business Tuesday evening during a second special session called by Gov. Cecil Underwood. The session addressed five supplemental appropriations, which were merged into a single bill.
During the brief 80-minute session in Charleston, lawmakers decided that $2 million would amount to a drop in the bucket for drought relief, and instead voted to free up as much as $11 million to help farmers and communities hard hit by this summer's severe drought conditions, reported Phil Kabler of the Charleston Gazette.
The Legislature agreed by a vote of 94-0 in the House, and 31-0 in the Senate, to transfer $14.55 million of 1998-99 budget surplus into the governor's civil contingency fund.
The bill says that $2 million is to be used to match $5 million in federal funds for low-interest loans for drought-relief projects. Another $3 million will go to buy hay and feedstock for livestock, and to overset the costs to the National Guard and state Department of Transportation for bringing those supplies to farmers around the state.
Another $3.75 million is allocated for other projects, including $1 million for the Public Employees Insurance Agency to help underwrite the costs of a new co-payment program; about $2 million towards the construction of the National Guard Regional Training Institute; $500,000 for the Guaranteed Work Force job-training program; and $250,000 for new water intake lines at a water treatment plant.
Also Tuesday, the West Virginia state Senate confirmed without debate 42 gubernatorial appointments.