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Local lawmakers get bills passed on parks, more

The Petaluma Adobe

Argus-Courier file photo
Published: Friday, October 5, 2012 at 10:16 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 5, 2012 at 10:16 a.m.

California's troubled state parks system, shaky finances and problems with violence at mental health facilities were areas of focus this year for the North Coast's legislative delegation.

The lawmakers -- Assemblymen Jared Huffman, Wes Chesbro and Michael Allen and state Sens. Noreen Evans and Mark Leno -- succeeded in getting 43 bills signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Highlights included the California State Parks Stewardship Act by Huffman, D-San Rafael, and a pair of bills by Allen, D-Santa Rosa, that are aimed at curbing violence at state mental health facilities and protecting patients and staff.

The lawmakers earned high marks from political observers for the number of bills they were able to push through the Legislature and get signed into law.

Leno, a San Francisco Democrat whose district includes southern Sonoma County, led the pack with 13 bills signed into law, followed by Chesbro and Allen, each with 11. Huffman had six, followed by Evans with two.

"They are a very active bunch. They also have a wealth of experience that they bring in a term-limited Legislature," said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University.

The two bills Evans got enacted into law this year relate to unemployment benefits for laid-off teachers and electronically-stored evidence in civil court cases.

Evans did not return several messages seeking comment this week. Her staff said she was traveling in Russia and France on state business.

In a statement issued Wednesday by her staff, Evans said she was "instrumental in the development and passage of several bills important to my district."

She cited as examples her work on committees that drafted a homeowner mortgage bill of rights and rescued home-to-school transportation for schoolchildren. She also took credit for drafting budget bills that will keep parks open for the next two years and help fund deferred maintenance projects.

Evans served two terms in the Assembly before being elected to the Senate. She also has applied to become a state appellate court justice.

McCuan said Evans' record for 2012 suggests that she is still "looking for her role" in the Senate.

Allen also did not return several messages this week seeking comment.

Among Allen's bills that earned Brown's approval this year were one that makes breast-feeding a protected right in the workplace and others that exempt commercial balloon operators from being regulated by the Public Utilities Commission and boost the number of liquor licenses in Marin County.

The governor vetoed five of Allen's bills, the most among North Coast lawmakers this year. They included a bill that would have barred employers from not offering jobs to people simply because they were out of work when they applied for the position, one that would have required restaurants with playgrounds to have the same standards of cleanliness for the equipment as in other areas of the establishment and another that would have provided financial assistance to farmers who transition to organic growing standards.

The governor rejected two of Leno's bills, including one that would have provided more protections from the government tracking people without a warrant based on information from an electronic device such as a cellphone.

Brown vetoed one of Huffman's bills that would have given doctors more authority over prescribing pain medication.

The lawmakers also had numerous bills that never made it to the governor's desk and either died in committee, were voted down in the Legislature or were withdrawn.

One of Allen's main bills this year that would have given farm-workers the right to overtime pay after they work more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours a week was rejected by the Assembly.

Barbara O'Connor, emeritus professor of communications and director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at CSU Sacramento, said another way to judge how lawmakers are faring is if they are in positions of leadership.

Allen, who is in his first term in office, is the assistant Assembly floor majority leader and also was picked for a committee tasked with making recommendations for pension changes for public employees.

O'Connor said Allen and other lawmakers can take credit for instituting some of the recommended pension changes, as well as for legislation tied to prisons, the telecom industry and health care.

She said the group also succeeded in passing a state budget on time, albeit one that relies heavily on the outcome of Proposition 30, a tax measure supported by Brown.

O'Connor said the tax measure factored into Brown's analysis of which bills to sign.

She also noted the role politics played in an election year, including for Assembly members.

A poll released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California revealed that only 30 percent of survey respondents approved of the job state lawmakers are doing. That's a modest improvement over this time last year when the approval rating was at 26 percent.

Dan Walters, a longtime political columnist for the Sacramento Bee, said the Legislature's work this year reinforces that the "real arena" for setting public policy in California is through the initiative process. He said the Legislature, by comparison, played "small ball."

"None of what happened this year truly represents an effort to get beyond political gamesmanship and identify the most pressing public policy issues of California, whether it's water, education, transportation or tax reform," Walters said.

"All of these things that need to be done were sitting on Jerry Brown's desk when he was governor 30 years ago, and they are still sitting there," Walters said.

Huffman said he found collaboration this year on his state parks bill, which among other things, allows Californians to redirect portions of their tax refunds to a parks "protection fund" in exchange for an annual state park day-use access pass.

Motorists also will be given the opportunity to buy special license plates with a portion of the proceeds going to state parks.

But he said most other issues fell along party lines, including his bill, signed by Brown, that extends the sunset date for the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority to 2020.

"That should have been an easy bill for people to support, and yet the Republican caucus was against it," Huffman said.

Chesbro, D-Arcata, said the legislation he got through this year will create jobs on the North Coast and address environmental concerns. That includes laws aimed at protecting California's crab fishing fleet from out-of-state vessels and ensuring adequate environmental review for timber harvest plans.

Chesbro said he was disappointed that his bill that would have encouraged employers to hire the disabled did not make it out of committee.

But he said even when thwarted, a bill can sometimes achieve the desired goal of spurring change, citing as an example the response he got from the state's Natural Resources Agency when he introduced legislation threatening to make changes to the Marine Life Protection Act.

"Sometimes the threat of a bill can have a beneficial effect without it getting to the governor," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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