No budget yet, but several new laws in California

Although more than three months of the fiscal year have passed and no budget is in place, that hasn’t stopped Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers from enacting hundreds of new laws affecting everything from classroom locks to kangaroo skins. 

The state’s fiscal crisis – an estimated $17.9 billion gap between revenues and spending commitments – caused lawmakers to abandon any bills costing the state’s cash-starved general fund large amounts of money.  And the refusal of Republican lawmakers to back tax increases, which require a two-thirds vote, means none are on the governor’s desk.  If they had reached him, Schwarzenegger vowed to veto them, the fate of several hundred measures lawmakers approved.

In even-number years, the Legislature ends its work August 31 and the governor had until midnight September 30 to sign or veto bills, or else allow them to become law without his signature.  As is often the case, many of the 772 measures sent to Schwarzenegger address technical issues that don’t directly impact the daily lives of most — if any – Californians. 

Some do, however. 

Small businesses and 3 million Californians who are without health insurance could be better able to obtain it through two bills that create what’s called the “California Health Benefit Exchange.”  Lobbied by President Obama, Schwarzenegger signed the two-bill package – AB 1602 and SB 900 — which creates a government-overseen marketplace to buy insurance. In theory, the exchange would give small businesses and individuals the same buying clout as larger companies.      

     “Choice and competition have the power to improve health care quality and reduce health care costs for California consumers,” the GOP governor said in a signing statement.  “With the California Health Benefit Exchange, we will be able to create a competitive marketplace where consumers can choose among qualified health plans – all without relying on the state’s general fund.” 

Republicans and their business allies led by the California Chamber of Commerce opposed the measures saying they were costly to implement and unnecessary since federal health care laws don’t become fully operational until 2014.

Health insurers also opposed the measures, fearing greater competition on pricing.  Among other health care measures signed by Schwarzenegger is SB 1088 that allows children to stay on their parents’ health plan until they are 26. Federal law already allows children to stay on their parents’ insurance until 26 but state law doesn’t. 

Parents of kindergarten-aged children are also in for a change. To enter kindergarten, a child must turn 5 by September 1 rather than the current December 2.  The change affects approximately 100,000 kids.  Former Gov. Pete Wilson previously proposed upping the admission age for kindergarten as a cost-saving measure. Teacher unions and parent groups opposed the idea.  Unlike Wilson’s proposal, which would have used the savings to help balance the state budget, this measure, SB 1381, earmarks the $700 million in savings from excluding younger children to create a new grade for them called “transitional kindergarten.”       

     “This is a victory for kids on two fronts,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Joe Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat. “We start kids when they’re ready to succeed in school, and for younger children we provide a ‘get ready’ year of instruction as well.”

Also, unlike Wilson’s proposal of 15 years ago, the change to September will be phased in.  The birthday cut-off date moves to November in 2012, October the following year and then to September in 2014.  Schwarzenegger called the bill a “landmark accomplishment for early childhood developmental education in California.” 

Come January, skiers and snowboarders under 18 years of age will join bicyclists under the same age and be required to wear helmets. Failing to do so could lead to a fine of up to $25 levied against the child’s parents.  Supporters offered the same arguments as those who backed the 1993 measure requiring bike helmets for non-adult riders and the 1992 law mandating helmets for all motorcyclists: Helmets reduce injury.  “California’s ski slopes are perhaps the last area of recreation where we do not have basic safety standards in place for children,” said Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, in a statement after his bill, SB 880, was sent to the GOP governor. 

Minors were immediately banned from being sold electronic cigarettes under another bill signed by Schwarzenegger. The $40 to $70 battery-powered devices, designed to look like cigarettes, deliver a vaporized liquid to the user.  How the federal government regulates them is being litigated. The California law merely applies the same restriction to e-cigarette sales as that of tobacco products to minors. 

A new law that takes effect July 1, 2011 spells big changes for users of carpool lanes.  The measure, also by Yee, allows 40,000 of the next generation of hybrids – electric motor, rechargeable battery-powered cars with small internal combustion engines – to use High Occupancy Vehicle lanes beginning in January 2012.  But the 85,000 hybrids currently allowed to use the lanes will lose the privilege in July 2011. 

In an effort to better protect teachers and students, starting July 1, all plans for new schools submitted to the state must include classroom doors that can be locked from inside. Most plans already include inside locks. 

Starting January 1, medical marijuana buyers’ clubs and dispensaries will be prohibited from locating within 600 feet of public or private schools.  The state law isn’t as strong as some already created through local zoning ordinances.  Los Angeles, for example, faces court challenges over an ordinance that took effect in June that will close 439 marijuana collectives, and forbids any remaining ones to be located within 1,000 feet of a school or another dispensary.  Berkeley also restricts dispensaries from being within 1,000 feet of a school.      

     “As medical marijuana dispensaries continue to open throughout the state, they are increasingly located near schools and parks, public libraries and child care facilities,” wrote Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, a San Ramon Democrat in justification for her bill, AB 2650.  “To keep medical marijuana dispensaries from further encroaching from (sic) places where children and families congregate, we believe we need to keep them a measured distance from these locations.” 

Shoes made from kangaroo skins will still be able to be bought and sold in California, at least until 2016 under a law signed by Schwarzenegger. The ability to buy products made from kangaroos was created by a 2007 law that was set to expire in 2011.  Previously, products made from kangaroos were prohibited. Remaining on the prohibited list are a number of other animals including polar bears, leopards, ocelots, tigers, cheetahs, zebras, whales, cobra, pythons, sea turtles and colobus monkeys.