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Session ends; aid OK'd for schools


September 16, 2001

SACRAMENTO -- The California Legislature, working into early yesterday morning to pass hundreds of bills and finish the 2001 session, approved a $200 million program to help the state's neediest schools. It also approved bills to give driver's licenses to immigrants seeking citizenship and rest breaks to shepherds.

The Senate, however, adjourned its session at 12:39 a.m. yesterday without voting on a plan to rescue Southern California Edison from bankruptcy. Gov. Gray Davis called an emergency legislative session for next month to try again to help the struggling utility. The Assembly ended its session at 2:52 a.m.

A proposed $12 billion school and college construction bond, which lawmakers had resurrected Thursday night, was shelved until lawmakers return in January. That means it cannot make the March ballot but could be put on the November 2002 ballot.

While legislators toiled, Tuesday's terrorist attacks were never far from their minds.

Gov. Gray Davis joined the Assembly for a brief memorial service that included a procession of lawmakers handing in letters they had written expressing their feeling about the attacks. The letters will be printed in a special Assembly Journal.

"Here in California, our job is to keep the peace and preach tolerance," said Davis, adding everyone should "stand behind the president" as he weighs future actions.

The Senate, decked with 40 large flags, one at each senator's desk, observed a minute of silence and sang "God Bless America."

Lawmakers approved a bill to send $1 million from the California Victim Compensation fund to a similar program in New York to help victims of terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center.

The new school-improvement program, supported by Davis, would provide grants of $400 per student to schools with the state's lowest test scores. They will have nearly four years to improve scores or face sanctions as severe as closing the school.

It also expands the state's improvement program for schools with scores in the bottom half of the state, doubling financing for those at the bottom.

The author, Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the schools would focus on proven strategies: reading, parent involvement and hiring and keeping of qualified teachers and principals.

"We have an unprecedented opportunity here to invest $200 million in helping our neediest children," he said.

The Senate approved the program 27-8 and the Assembly 76-0.

The Legislature approved a bill that would let an estimated 1.5 million immigrants apply for California driver's licenses. The bill partly reverses a 1993 bill that blocks noncitizens from getting licenses.

Immigrants would be allowed to submit their application for citizenship as proof of residence in the country and substitute a taxpayer identification number for the required Social Security number.

Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Commerce, said licensed drivers are more likely to be insured drivers.

"It's an issue of safety, and at the same time, it's the right thing to do."

However, Assemblyman Bill Campbell, R-Villa Park, said Tuesday's events show it should be more difficult to get a license now because "I do believe we are at war. We should not be facilitating anybody to be coming at us from any direction."

The bill passed the Senate 22-7 and the Assembly 51-19.

Passed by a 41-28 Assembly vote, the shepherd bill would give people who watch sheep some of the basic working conditions that other workers have in state law. Those include a 10-minute rest break for every four hours of work, tools paid for by the employer and toilets, lights and water in housing.

It also would put into state law a $1,050-a-month minimum wage for sheepherders that was approved by the state Industrial Welfare Commission.

The Assembly, by a 41-28 vote, approved a bill allowing people certified by their doctors as needing marijuana for medical reasons to get a new state identification card. However, the bill stalled in the Senate and won't be considered again until January.

The purpose, said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, is so police will know the person qualifies under Proposition 215, the initiative approved by voters, to use medical marijuana.

The cards would be voluntary. Any unauthorized person using such a card to get pot could face a fine up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail.

Lawmakers approved two bonds aimed for the March ballot: $2.6 billion for park, open-space and wildlife-habitat programs and $200 million for updated county voting equipment.

The vote on the park bill was 29-3 in the Senate and 55-8 in the Assembly. The election bond bill was approved 28-8 by the Senate and 70-6 by the Assembly.

After weeks of inactivity on the issue, lawmakers had reopened public discussions Thursday night on a possible school bond of $12 billion, also for March.

However, late Friday, Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, a leader in the effort, told colleagues the bond would not be voted on this year. Davis prefers a school bond in November.

Lawmakers also sent Davis a bill that would raise maximum weekly unemployment benefits from $230 to $450 over three years.

Sen. Bruce McPherson, R-Santa Cruz, said the increase was "exorbitant" and would take away money that employers could use to provide jobs.

The bill's author, Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-San Fernando, said the state's unemployment insurance fund has enough money -- $6.5 billion -- to cover the increase without forcing employers to pay more.



Copyright 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.