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Health insurance, workers’ comp, tax swap lead lawmakers’ agendas

California Countdown

SACRAMENTO — California legislators return from an abbreviated summer recess Monday to wrap up their 2003 session with four hectic weeks of lawmaking, dominated by efforts to expand health insurance coverage, cut workers’ compensation costs and replace an unpopular car tax hike with more popular levies.

Lurking in the background, and perhaps adding to the turmoil, will be the threat of the first recall of a governor in California history.

Republicans expect Democrats, worried that the Oct. 7 recall might result in the ouster of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the election of a Republican successor, will use the end of session to push through bills designed to keep Davis in office, including the car tax swap.

“We would expect to see a lot of shenanigans on the floor in the last 30 days,” said Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks.

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, D-Culver City, said he’ll do everything he can to keep lawmakers focused on the key issues already scheduled for votes instead of the “recall circus.”

Breaking his usual practice, Davis has already announced that he will sign a number of the bills, including measures to protect access to abortion and provide drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. On Saturday, he said he would support giving domestic partners most of the same legal rights that married couples have, saying the bill would help ensure “fairness for all Californians.”

His aides deny that the announcements are part of his efforts to shore up Democratic voter support against the recall.

Other major bills awaiting action include legislation to require employers with an as-yet-unspecified number of workers to help pay for health insurance coverage for their employees and their dependents.

Roughly 6 million Californians go without health coverage at some point during a year and 80 percent of them work or have a family member with a job. Even legislation that would require employers with, for example, more than 50 workers to help provide health insurance would put a significant dent in the problem, Democrats say.

Lawmakers are also under heavy pressure to pass legislation designed to cut the costs employers face in paying to treat work-related injuries suffered by their employees.

Those workers’ comp costs have skyrocketed in the last few years after taking big dips in the mid-1990s, and employers are pressing for cost controls, such as caps on what outpatient treatment centers can charge to treat workers’ comp patients.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, says there is a “natural symbiotic relationship” between the two issues and that he’ll press for passage of both bills.

“A lot of people felt that workers’ comp can’t wait,” he said. “If that can’t wait, this (health insurance) can’t wait.”

Six-member, two-house conference committees will be trying to work out agreements on both subjects.

Republicans question whether the workers’ comp solutions will be adequate.

“I expect a placebo workers’ comp bill to pass, a reform that allows Democrats to say we have solved the problem, but doesn’t really do anything or gets very little savings to business,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga.

But one of the Democratic conferees, Sen. Richard Alarcon of Van Nuys, says “chances are excellent” that lawmakers will produce legislation that will cut workers’ comp costs as much as $5 billion, despite an “incredible lobbying effort” against it by the outpatient treatment centers.

“I think Senator Brulte is more focused on promoting an agenda that works relative to the recall effort,” said Alarcon. “I believe Democrats are focused on reducing costs for employers.”

The tax swap proposal has bubbled up since lawmakers approved a $99 billion state budget that uses a tripling of the vehicle license fee to ease a record $38.2 billion deficit.

Under legislation being drafted by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the fee, or car tax, hike would be reversed and that $4 billion in annual revenue would be replaced by higher taxes on tobacco and the wealthy.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who’s running in the recall in hopes of keeping the governor’s office in Democratic hands if Davis is ousted, proposed the switch as a way of saving money for working-class families.

But Steinberg says the switch would also protect local government revenue generated by the car tax hike, which could be overturned by court rulings or a potential ballot measure.

“We should not wait for events to happen to constituents who depends on good-quality public services,” he said. “We need to be creative and take the initiative.”

Tobacco and higher income taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents could also be more popular with recall voters.

Democrats say the revenue-neutral switch can be made by simple majority votes in the Legislature, instead of the two-thirds majorities required to raise taxes. But Republicans say the swap could end up in court.

Also among the approximately 1,000 pieces of legislation that could pass before lawmakers leave town are:

— Legislation by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, that would give domestic partners most of the same legal rights as married couples.

— A long-stalled bill by Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Daly City, that would give consumers more control over the selling or sharing of their financial records by banks, insurers and other financial institutions.

— A constitutional amendment by Burton that would bolster the public’s access to local government meetings and records.

— Legislation by Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, that would enable illegal immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses, a step supporters say would make the roads safer by increasing the chances those drivers would have training and insurance. Critics see security risks in the bill.

— Another Speier bill that tries to prevent corporations from cutting their California taxes by moving their headquarters to offshore havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

— Legislation by Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, that would require bottled water to meet the same contaminant requirements as public drinking water.

— Another Burton bill that would provide greater protections for Indian sacred sites threatened by development projects.

— Two bills that would move the primary election for state and congressional candidates to June. That switch could clear the way for another attempt on the March presidential primary ballot to allow legislators facing term limits to run again.

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On the Net: Read the bills at http://www.senate.ca.gov or http://www.assembly.ca.gov