Business interests are once again playing defense in Sacramento as dozens of bills that could harm businesses have cleared a key deadline.


Bills that would require businesses to provide or pay for employee health care, increase workers' compensation benefits paid to injured workers and regulate the amount of chemicals used in their products all passed their houses of origin by the June 8 deadline.


Also moving forward were bills to place fees on each shipping container entering the state's major ports and limit, or tightly regulate, many new housing developments.


While the bills are fewer in number than last year, business lobbyists say they could still wreak considerable damage to employer pocketbooks.


"There are not as many bills as we expected to be dealing with, but the bills this year pose more of a threat to employers than in most previous years," said Michael Shaw, legislative director for the California chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.


Topping the list are two health care reform bills carried by the leader of each chamber, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nu & #324;ez, D-Los Angeles, and Senate President Don Perata, D-Oakland. Both Assembly Bill 8 and Senate Bill 48 would require employers to provide health care for their employees or pay an "in lieu" fee of 7.5 percent of payroll to the state. The proceeds would then be used to help pay for coverage for the uninsured.


"It's SB 2 all over again," Shaw said, referring to a bill four years ago that required employers to provide health care for their employees or pay a to-be-determined amount to a state fund. That bill was signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis days before he was recalled from office; the next year, business groups placed a referendum on the law on the ballot and waged a successful campaign to overturn it.


Competing proposal


This time, though, there's a competing proposal on the table from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, which would set the employer fee at 4 percent of payroll while also requiring insurers, hospitals and medical groups to pay their own fees into the system. Schwarzenegger's plan suffered a setback recently when legislative counsel Linda Dozier ruled that the fees on insurers and health care providers are involuntary and thus are taxes that need two-thirds approval from the Legislature to pass.


Negotiations over the various health care bills are expected to intensify during the closing weeks of the legislative session later this summer.


Legislative leaders Nu & #324;ez and Perata are also moving forward a pair of bills that would increase workers' compensation benefits to injured workers. Perata's SB 936 would effectively double permanent partial disability payments, while Nu & #324;ez' AB 1212 would require the head of the state Division of Workers' Compensation to determine how much to raise permanent partial disability payments.


Another bill SB 942, by Carole Migden, D-San Francisco would allow injured workers to sue their employers under anti-discrimination laws if their claims are denied or they deem their benefits inadequate.


Employers contend all of these bills would roll back the 2003 and 2004 reforms that have sliced workers' compensation premiums in half for most businesses.


Labor groups and attorneys for injured workers claim that those reforms achieved savings for employers and insurers while shortchanging legitimately injured workers. They hope to bolster their case by getting an initiative qualified for the ballot that would increase access of injured workers to their own physicians and limit the right of employers or their insurers to reject treatment claims.


Initiative proponents must gather 434,000 signatures by Sept. 10. If the initiative were to qualify for the ballot before the session ends in late August, it could put pressure on the negotiations over these bills.


Industrial chemicals


Hoping to ride the environmental wave from last session's passage of the landmark greenhouse gas reduction bill, several bills are targeting specific industrial chemicals deemed to have harmful health or environmental impacts. Passing the Assembly were:


>AB 515, by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, would require state regulators to set permissible exposure limits for workplace hazardous substances;


>AB 558, by Assemblyman Michael Feuer, D-Los Angeles, would assess fees on businesses for the use of chemicals the state deems toxic and also require industries to develop their own plans to reduce use of the chemicals; and


>AB 1108, by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, would ban a class of chemicals called phthalates that are found in many baby toys.


Development limits


Also riding environmental coattails are several bills that would either place limits on development or increase the costs by imposing environmental standards.


>Two bills would punish local agencies that approve developments in floodplains: AB 5, by Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Vacaville and AB 70 by Dave Jones, D-Sacramento;


>Another trio of bills would shift the development of so-called "green building" standards away from the Building Standards Commission to other agencies that may not give as much consideration of the cost consideration of the regulations; and


>Several other bills would require environmental analyses of the "carbon footprint" the amount of fossil fuel use generated by proposed developments.


"What we're seeing here is the environmental community trying to wrap the whole climate change thing around land use," said Dominic DiMare, vice president of government relations for the California Chamber of Commerce.


Another bill drawing opposition from statewide business groups is SB 974 by Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach yet another attempt to pass a $30 per container fee on all cargo containers that pass through the ports of Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland. The money would then go towards programs to reduce diesel emissions and congestion at the ports.


Business groups say this would increase the cost of shipping and also violate international commerce laws. Last year, Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill on these grounds.


Finally, there are a handful of bills being pushed by business groups. AB 1696, by Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, hopes to cut down on runaway film production by authorizing the California Film Commission to give out an as-yet-unspecified amount in incentive grants to film producers who shoot in California. Attempts in prior years to craft incentives to rein in runaway film production have collapsed during final negotiations.


Also, AB 1152, by Roger Niello, R-Sacramento, would establish a 5-cent sales tax exemption on the purchase of most manufacturing equipment.


"California is one of only four states that taxes the purchase of manufacturing equipment, which contributes to the state's high cost of doing business," said Jack Stewart, president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, which is sponsoring the bill and has long sought the exemption.


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