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California Legislative Roundup: Legislature's Gains Muted by Governor's Veto Pen

The breadth of issues addressed by the California Legislature was impressive as legislative leaders moved aggressively on the environment and clean energy, education, workplace family issues, and health care. However, because of the Governor's veto pen and the minority party's ability to block revenue bills with just one-third of the vote, the extent of the progress the Legislature made on these issues was far less than it could have been.

Environment, Conservation and Clean Energy: With the world's 6th largest economy and as one of the world's top 10 emitters of the heat trapping gas carbon dioxide, California has had to become a trend-setter on environmental policy. Although California arguably achieved more bi-partisan gains on the environment than on any other issue, Governor's vetoes of key legislation have tempered environmentalists' enthusiasm, as the Los Angeles Times reports. Highlights of enacted policies include:

Vetoing the Environment: Despite these gains, several promising bills died on Governor Schwarzenegger's desk, including: green building incentives and standards for residential and commercial developers; requirements on oil companies to reduce carbon and other pollutants in transportation fuels at least 10% by 2020; and legislation phasing out use of certain hazardous chemicals in consumer electronic products -- all of which bring California in step with European Union standards.

Education: Education gains were modest in 2007. The real story, however, is Governor Schwarzenegger's vetoes of legislation that would have expanded opportunity in the state. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the California Dream Act which would have helped thousands of high-achieving yet undocumented students afford tuition and housing to further their educational goals. SB 1

He also vetoed: the College Textbooks Affordability Act; requirements on charter schools to show they have the capacity and wherewithal to provide effective special education programming for special education students; and, requirements on state education officials to identify alternative criteria for proficient students to obtain high school diplomas who are unable to pass exit exams.

Workplace Issues: As with education, promising legislation to expand workplace family protections and the rights of workers to unionize fell to the veto pen. Bills axed by the Governor include: an expansion of paid family leave eligibility that would have included employees who are caring for a seriously ill grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, or parents-in-law; protections from workplace discrimination for employees who are responsible outside of work as a caregiver for a family member; and, pro-union legislation allowing for "majority sign up" to help agricultural workers choose collective bargaining. 

Family Issues:  Three bills authored by State Sen. Sheila Kuehl that survived the trip to the Governor's desk will keep together infants and their teen parents who are in the foster care system, allow for the inclusion of pets in domestic violence protection orders, and increase reimbursement rates for family planning providers under the state's Family Planning, Access, Care and Treatment program. SB 770, SB 353, SB 94

Immigrant Rights: recent poll by the Survey and Research Institute at San Jose State University shows that almost two-thirds of Californians support allowing undocumented immigrants become legal residents of the state. Despite rejecting the California Dream Act, Governor Schwarzenegger did sign fair-treatment-of-immigrants legislation prohibiting local ordinances that would require landlords to inquire, compile, report, or disclose any information regarding the citizenship status of a current or potential tenant. AB 976

Public Safety: To aid law enforcement in tracking down crime-gun assailants, lawmakers enacted the Crime Gun Identification Act of 2007, which requires all new models of semiautomatic handguns sold in the state after January 1, 2010 to be manufactured with "microstamping" technology. This "stamp" will ensure that rounds fired from a semiautomatic weapon are imprinted with the gun's unique fingerprint, which will aid law enforcement in solving crimes committed with these weapons. AB 1471

Voting Rights: Lastly, pro-democracy advocates won a strategic name change to encourage more voter turnout by changing the name of "absentee-ballot voting" to "vote by mail." Little in the state's elections laws will change, but supporters of the name change believe it will remind voters that everyone can vote by mail and that you don't need to be "absent" on election day in order to vote early and by mail.  AB 1243

Health Care, the Incomplete Chapter:  As we have repeatedly detailed in the Stateside Dispatch, health care reform has been the story of this legislative session starting last December and January. Despite the Legislature's passage of a comprehensive health care reform package that included many elements of the Governor's own priorities, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed AB 8 and called a special session to iron out differences between himself and the Democratic legislative leaders. As of now, the debate is on-going and comes down to two fundamental questions that are permeating the health care debate in states across the country and in DC: (1) should individuals be mandated to purchase health insurance coverage and (2) how much should employers pay into the system. During the regular session, however, some bipartisan reforms did pass:

  • Drug Labeling - The state instituted new labeling standardization for prescription drugs, a measure supported by the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California and which will standardize label content and require immediate translation into a patient's primary language. SB 472
  • Federal Funding - With the closure of MLK Jr.-Harbor Hospital in South Los Angeles, which we documented previously in the Stateside Dispatch as a glaring indication of racial and ethnic health disparities, lawmakers are redirecting $100 million in federal funds that would have been lost to keep the facility open. SB 474
  • Insurance Regulations - Lawmakers enacted new regulations on insurance companies preventing them from dropping children with mental or physical disabilities from insurance after they reach a certain age. And, after a state investigation found some of the state's largest insurance companies were improperly dropping enrollees from coverage, insurers will now be required to justify to the State decisions to rescind an enrollee's policy. AB 910 and AB 1324

On the other hand, Schwarzenegger vetoed other key health reforms approved by the legislature, including:

  • Employer Scrooge Act - AB 343 would have required public disclosure of employers that don't provide health care to workers, workers that end of up on the state's Medicaid and other public programs. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year.
  • Mental Health Parity - AB 423 would have provided for mental health parity by requiring health plans to cover mental health needs at the same level as physical health needs. 
  • Patient Protections - After national news coverage of a Skid Row hospital dumping homeless patients in alleys, lawmakers sought to protect patients by passing SB 275, which would have required hospitals to have written discharge policies and plans for post-discharge care, and prevented hospitals from moving patients to locations other than their home without the patient's consent.
  • Condoms in Prisons - Although HIV-experts assert the effectiveness of condom use and distribution as effective and cheap ways to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS, the Governor vetoed a measure that would have allowed the distribution of condoms in prisons. One positive note, however, the Governor did sign AB 682 which authorizes the routine testing of patients for HIV.

Conclusion: With the on-going special session on health care, it is premature to give a final assessment of California's legislative gains in 2007.  However, it is clear that the legislature has a strong progressive bent. Unfortunately, the Governor's priorities, as reflected by his veto pen, are muting some of the gains made by the legislature.

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