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That's Wack 

California’s legislature approves 1,000 new laws annually. Insert laugh track here

Wednesday, Sep 19 2007
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IN CALIFORNIA, IT BECAME ILLEGAL this year to tie up your dog, whether in a public or private place, for more than three hours. There’s also a new law barring Californians from removing more than 25 freebie newspapers from the stands. And for the inner boozer in all of us, California law now allows stores that sell alcohol to hand out free beer — as long as no more than eight ounces per person is served per day.

Those and dozens of other micro-laws were approved by the 2006 legislature and signed by the Governator last fall, though few Californians ever got the word. And now, amid widespread criticism over their failure to achieve much of merit, Sacramento’s 120 legislators have again sent to Schwarzenegger reams of new laws that illustrate their flair for high volume — and minutiae.

This year, in fact, the legislature accomplished so little — failing to address major issues like prison overcrowding or the state’s inadequate water infrastructure in the face of booming growth — that Schwarzenegger asked lawmakers back from their annual September break and into a special session to deal with health care reform, which foundered amid endless partisan sniping.

But the legislature was extremely busy on other fronts, approving and sending to Arnold stacks of new laws (he has until October 14 to sign or veto them) that Californians are expected to remember and abide by — an expectation critics say has become impossible even for police and regulators. In the past 10 years, according to the Governor’s Office, California’s legislature has approved 10,939 bills. That’s an average of 1,093 laws hitting the streets every year.

One bill awaiting Schwarzenegger’s signature is Assembly Bill 105, by Ted Lieu, a Democrat who represents the South Bay and coastal areas of the Westside. Lieu wrote a thicket of 30 proposed bills this year, including AB 105, which would require California parents to appear in person at tanning salons to give the okay if their kids, age 14 to 18, want to soak up a salon’s ultraviolet rays. (Children 14 and under are barred from using tanning salons.)

David Ford, chief of staff for Lieu, says melanoma is the fastest-growing cancer among young women, which he says is why the California Cancer Society and California Medical Association are backing the bill.

But California already requires older teens wanting an extra bronze glow to get a signed parental consent form to use a tanning salon. John Overstreet, executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association, insists that it is already standard business practice at most tanning salons to have the parent sign the consent form in person. Now it will be a crime — this one a misdemeanor — if they don’t appear in person, and there’s zero evidence it will reduce disease. “What’s next — is the government going to have someone stationed at Manhattan Beach making sure teenagers don’t get burnt?” scoffs Overstreet. “An indoor tanning salon is the only place where you have multiple levels of parent and trained staff involvement, and it’s someone’s job that you don’t get a burn.”

ANOTHER SEEMINGLY FUTILE LAW is Assembly Bill 881 by Gene Mullin, a Bay Area Democrat. Mullin churned out 24 proposed laws this season; AB 881 would require parents to provide child restraints or booster seats for children until they reach 8 years old or 4-feet-9-inches tall — a dramatic change from current law that affects children only until they are 6 or weigh 60 pounds.  

Juan Cisneros, a legislative aid to Mullin, claims the law is needed and will be easy for parents to abide by because it doesn’t factor in weight but instead focuses on height. But the California Department of Motor Vehicles opposes the bill, saying that a blizzard of such laws has badly confused parents. A federal survey last year showed that these laws are failing, with roughly half of all children who are required to be in safety seats simply not being strapped in. Moreover, the nationwide safety-oriented lobbying groups that have been aggressively pushing California and other state legislatures to require these booster seats cannot produce hard data proving that they actually save lives among older kids.

“While we wholly support the concept of protecting young passengers, we note that this is the fifth change to passenger-restraint laws in the last seven years,” says a worn-out-sounding Mike Marando, spokesman for the California DMV.

Not to mention the steep new cost to every California parent with an older child. Booster seats cost $20 to $110, and the U.S. Census Bureau states that California has roughly 1 million 6- to 7-year-olds, the group targeted by AB 881. That’s tens of millions of dollars in new costs to California parents, with large and poor families suffering the most.

Other micro bills in front of Schwarzenegger include one to outlaw trans fats — in shortening, no less; restrictions on knock-off performers who use a band’s name when nobody is from the original band; and of course Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez’s attempt, hastily approved at 3 a.m. one recent day, to change California law so that billionaire Phil Anschutz and other fatcat developers can apply to use special affordable-housing bond money approved by voters last year.

Even with so many miniscule laws piled on Schwarzenegger’s desk — most of them written at the behest of narrowly focused special-interest groups rather than due to any big interest from average voters — some observers in the capital say the crown goes to Senate Bill 880 by Ron Calderon, representing southeast Los Angeles County, who authored 31 proposed laws this year. (The vast majority of California laws since 1958 have been written by Democrats such as Calderon, because the Democrats control committee decisions on which new laws to send to the legislature for a vote.)

SB 880 would allow importation of leather from non-endangered kangaroos. A 1971 California law forbids commercial importation of species including kangaroos, polar bears, zebras and elephants. But now some soccer players say kangaroo leather is ideal for their cleats because it is supposedly lighter and molds easier to the foot.

No surprise that Adidas, one of the largest users of kangaroo-derived products, is a huge backer of Calderon’s obscure bill. For years, superstar player David Beckham wore the popular Adidas Predator cleats made from kangaroo hide, but according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Beckham switched to synthetic leather Predator cleats last year.

“David Beckham proves that you can wear cruelty-free products,” says Matt Rice of PETA, one of SB 880’s main opponents, which also claims that Australia’s kangaroo population is dwindling.

But like so many less-than-earth-shattering disputes among special interest groups on both sides of such proposed laws in Sacramento, the other side says just the opposite. According to the Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia, the continent is home to about 25 million kangaroos — and that’s just counting the four large “super abundant” species. Also, that nation’s government strongly supports a bustling industry that exports kangaroo products to more than 70 countries.

“People have been harvesting kangaroos in Australia for 80,000 years,” says John Kelly, executive officer of Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia, in an e-mail. “The industry is extremely tightly regulated. . . . It’s widely supported by ecologists and environmental professionals nationally.” Adds Kelley, “What we do isn’t really that new or strange.” 

California already has on its books so many laws that officials are uncertain of the number, with no signs of slowing down. The legislature’s approval of more than 1,000 new ones each year outstrips that of the next most populous state, Texas. Maybe that’s because in Texas, lawmakers meet only every other year, while California has a full-time legislature. Each year, Sacramento politicians are pressured to pursue hundreds of these mini-laws by dozens of lobbying groups with permanent offices in the capital — groups who are among the most active campaign contributors in California, and who give money freely to the very legislators who later author new bills proposed by these groups.

All the states do it. Some are just worst than others. According to Krista Moodie, spokeswoman for Texas Governor Rick Perry, since Perry’s election in 2000, he has signed 5,624 bills. In the same time period, Schwarzenegger and former Governor Gray Davis signed 6,712 bills – 1,088 more than in the minutiae-mired Lone Star State.

If that number leaves you with a headache, remember to keep your eyes peeled for the free beer samples. At least one recent law in California comes with a Happy Hour.

Reach the writer at sophiakercher@gmail.com

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