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SACRAMENTO — In the end, the Assembly floor vote on a bill that sought to ban secret settlements in cases of public danger wasn’t even close. In a mere 7 seconds, 18 abstentions put the vote at 31 to 31 — 10 shy of what was needed to pass. Outside the state Assembly chamber on Thursday, the halls erupted in cheers, staffers reported. Seven of those abstaining had promised the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, their support, said Debra Gravert, Pavley’s chief of staff. “This is a blow for consumer safety,” said Mary Alexander, former president of the American Trial Lawyers Association. “We always have that with product liability cases — the defense and the argument about proprietary information, but we have to put public health and safety first.” The vote was a solid victory for business lobbyists — in particularly the tech and biomedical industries, which had peppered fence-sitters with phone calls and letters ahead of the floor vote. “The biotechnology industry stands firm on their opposition to Assembly Bill 1700,” read a “floor alert” this week from Biocom, an industry group representing 450 members in the life sciences. “This vote will be used for the production of the state legislative scorecard.” Pavley, a Democrat from Agoura Hills, had spent weeks lobbying moderate Democrat fence-sitters. Just two days before Thursday’s votes, she had amended the bill to take out most of the language dealing with the tech and medical industries — two major opponents of the bill. On Tuesday, Gravert predicted AB 1700 had “a solid 36″ votes, with 41 needed to move the bill. But by Thursday, it was clear that the business lobby — headed by the technology and biotech groups that had killed a similar bill in 2001 — had prevailed. “A lot of people who looked at it decided they didn’t want to kill off the tech industry,” said Jim Hawley, general counsel for TechNet, a technology industry and lobbying group that also played a huge role in defeating 2001′s SB 11 by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Whittier. “It was a huge victory,” added Barbara Morrow, vice president and general counsel for the California Healthcare Institute, an association representing manufacturers of medical devices, biotech firms and pharmaceuticals. Industry and business groups — which also included the California Chamber of Commerce and the Civil Justice Association of California — had argued that the bill language pertaining to environmental hazards was too broad. They also insisted that AB 1700 would hurt business by making proprietary information public in the course of the settlement process. “That argument is so bogus,” said Consumer Attorneys of California President Sharon Arkin. “It frustrates me no end.” Pavley and her supporters had argued that the bill only affected defendants in cases involving grave injury or death and that a judge could still step in and keep information confidential. Bogus or not, the lobbyists’ argument clearly swayed moderate Democrats — there are about a dozen who are slow to vote against legislation billed as detrimental to jobs and business. Of the 18 members who abstained on 1700, 10 are considered “mod-squad” Democrats. “It underscores that legislators are so afraid of pushing for ‘job killers’ that they miss out on the opportunity to do something good for California,” said Ignacio Hernandez, legislative advocate for the Consumer Federation of California. Hernandez added that the coalition opposing 1700 was galvanized by success in passing Proposition 64, the measure that in November successfully limited private suits under California Business & Professions Code � 17200. “That kind of emboldened them to take on this legislation,” Hernandez said. “High-tech dropped a lot of money into Prop 64. These are the same folks.” Supporters of Pavley’s bill say they’re not sure whether they’ll continue the fight to make civil settlements public. At Pavley’s request, Thursday’s vote on AB 1700 was expunged and the bill moved to the inactive file, meaning that it can be brought back to the assembly floor in January for another vote. Pavley says she is not yet sure she wants to do that, or whether she will entertain any new amendments to the bill if she does. Bill supporters, including CAOC — which did not take a leading role in pushing 1700 — and the Consumer Federation, say they would hope public education about the dangers of secret settlements might turn some opposing votes around. Tech and biotech groups say they would only back off in their opposition if Pavley had completely removed them from the bill. “If she had limited it to [defective] automobiles and sexual abuse, we would have walked away,” Morrow said. Bruce Broillet, the former CAOC president who battled secret settlements in 2001, calls that attitude “a remarkable display of hubris and power.” “I wonder what high-tech knows that they don’t want the rest of us to know,” he said.

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