Legislators reconvene to face budget woes, leftover issues

California lawmakers begin their2008 session Monday with another multibillion-dollar budget deficit hanging over their heads and dozens of leftover issues on their agendas, including an ambitious $14 billion health coverage expansion.

The health care bill, which would extend coverage to most of the 5.1 million Californians who lack health insurance, passed the Assembly in December. But Senate leaders have delayed action on it until they get a diagnosis of the state's fiscal condition and the bill's long-term costs.

An indication of how bleak the state's finances are comes Tuesday, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers his annual State of the State address. On Thursday, he'll release his budget proposals for the fiscal year that starts July 1 and is expected to propose deep spending cuts to deal with a deficit that could reach $14 billion.

That could spell trouble for the health care bill that Schwarzenegger negotiated with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles. Senate President Don Perata, D-Oakland, said last month that he would be reluctant to approve new health care programs at a time when Schwarzenegger was calling for cuts in existing ones.

Perata has asked the Legislature's budgetanalyst for a report on the long-term cost of the health care plan, which would be funded partially through a tobacco tax increase that would need voter approval.

The Senate Health Committee has scheduled a hearing on the measure Jan. 16.

The budget morass also could hold up negotiations on a multibillion bond measure to finance water projects. The talks have bogged down over how to structure funding for new dams.

“Come Monday, everything is going to be about the budget and trying to fill that gap,” said Perata spokeswoman Alicia Trost. “We have to sort out the budget before we can dive back into water talks.”

But there are dozens of other issues that can't wait for a budget resolution. They are bills left over from 2007 that have to pass their first house by the end of January or die.

Nineteen legislative committees have scheduled hearings this week to begin considering those bills, which include:

GRADUATION EXAM – Assemblywoman Wilmer Carter, D-Rialto, has a bill that would funnel more counseling money to high schools with large numbers of students who fail the state high school graduation exam. A related measure by Assemblywoman Nell Soto, D-Pomona, would require the Department of Education to provide tutoring for students who fail the test. Both are on the Assembly Education Committee's agenda on Wednesday.

VOTING – A bill by Assemblyman Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, would require voters to show a driver's license or another form of photo identification when they show up to vote at polling stations. But there could be fewer polling places under legislation by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. That measure would allow 10 counties with high numbers of absentee voters to reduce the number of polling stations as a way to encourage more people to vote by mail. Those proposals are before the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee on Tuesday.

WORK HOURS – Individual employees could agree with employers to work four 10-hour days a week without collecting overtime under legislation by Assemblyman John Benoit, R-Riverside. Currently, it takes a two-thirds vote by employees or a labor contract to exempt those schedules from overtime requirements. The Assembly Labor and Employment Committee is scheduled to take upthe bill on Wednesday.

POVERTY CZAR – Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, wants to create a Cabinet-level position of poverty secretary to oversee the state's anti-poverty programs. Her bill is on the Assembly Human Services Committee's agenda on Tuesday.

PRODUCT INGREDIENTS – Manufacturers of most consumer products would have to list the substances contained in those products on their Web sites under a bill by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. The measure, which would let consumers and competitors know if a product was really environmentally beneficial, is before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee on Monday.

POLYVINYL CHLORIDE – On Tuesday, the Assembly's Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee is scheduled to consider a bill by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, that would prohibit packaging material containing polyvinyl chloride. A recent study found that 61 percent of polyvinyl chloride packaging contains toxic heavy metals, in violation of state law. Polyvinyl chloride also contains hormone-disrupting chemicals known as phthalates.

On the Net: http://www.assembly.ca.gov and http://www.senate.ca.gov

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