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SACRAMENTO � It’s a perplexing time of the year for consumer attorneys and advocates, and that has nothing to do with eggnog or Christmas lists. With the Legislature resuming work in January after a three-month hiatus, lawmakers, their staffs and lobbyists are busy crafting the bill packages they plan to pursue in 2006. And that could mean the resurrection of consumer-protection measures that stalled or were vetoed in a 2005 session that produced no real blockbuster legislation. But will it? Advocates of bills to outlaw secret settlements and publicize the results of clinical drug trials � and other legislation backed by the plaintiffs’ bar � say they’re still trying to decide what to do. On the one hand, voters in the November special election rejected initiatives pushed by business friendly Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Chamber of Commerce. Approval ratings for the once-popular governor remain mired in the mid-30s. On the other hand, the Legislature’s approval figures are even worse. And since November, Schwarzenegger has bolstered his staff with even more Chamber allies unlikely to support greater consumer protections. Add to that the upcoming 2006 elections, the number of key lawmakers termed out of office next year and an impending battle over a multibillion dollar bond, and consumer groups are still weighing their options. In the wake of the November election, Schwarzenegger said he wanted to work more productively with legislative Democrats, traditional allies of the consumer attorneys, and he tapped Susan Kennedy, a Democrat, as his new chief of staff. But Kennedy is seen as business friendly. She rankled consumer groups when she served on the Public Utilities Commission and voted for all four of Schwarzenegger’s initiatives. The governor also raised eyebrows when he named Dan Dunmoyer deputy chief of staff for policy issues. Dunmoyer is the former president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, a traditional foil of plaintiff lawyers’ legislative agenda. “I think [Dunmoyer] is going to have a lot of sway, and he’ll just continue to carry on the insurance industry’s agenda on the inside of the governor’s office instead of the outside,” said Bruce Brusavich, former president of the Consumer Attorneys of California. The plaintiffs’ bar organization is still fine-tuning its legislative plans, Brusavich said, and pondering whether Schwarzenegger may soften his stance against consumer-friendly bills with his re-election at stake in November. John Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Association, a tort-reform group often at odds with trial lawyers, hopes that doesn’t happen. “We’ll be very watchful,” he said, adding that he’s seen no evidence that there’s any need for the consumer bills. Among the consumer-protection bills that may resurface in 2006: � Assembly Bill 72 by Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Glendale, which would force drug makers to release the results of their clinical trials to the state. Trial lawyers traditionally have supported legislation that gives them greater access to evidence that’s potentially damning in plaintiffs’ cases. The bill, opposed by pharmaceutical companies, stalled on the Assembly floor at the hands of moderate Democrats and Republicans. Frommer had the vote tally expunged from the record, a procedural move that keeps the bill alive until next year. � AB 446 by Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod. The governor vetoed this bill to ban certain licensed professionals from including “gag clauses” in settlements that prevent consumers from filing a complaint with the state Department of Consumer Affairs. Schwarzenegger struck down a similar bill in 2004. “We haven’t decided what to do yet. We’re still mad,” said Julie D’Angelo Fellmeth, administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law, the University of San Diego School of Law group that backed the bill. D’Angelo Fellmeth said Schwarzenegger’s pounding in the special election did not boost her hopes for AB 446. “There is some consolation in that his initiatives were soundly defeated,” she said, “but he’s got a re-election campaign and he’ll want to keep his business allies.” � Frommer’s AB 528, sponsored by numerous environmental groups, would have created limited private rights of action to enforce public health or environmental laws. Tort reformers blasted the bill as an attempt to skirt 2004′s Proposition 64 � which restricted suits under the state’s Unfair Competition Law to public agencies and those who can show direct harm � and the bill never made it out of the Assembly. Rico Mastrodonato, executive director of the California League of Conservation Voters, said AB 528 is among a handful of bills a coalition of environmental groups is pondering. “It’s a very, very straightforward bill that is perfectly sensible and absolutely necessary,” he said. � AB 1700, a bill to ban secret settlements in cases involving dangerous motor vehicle conditions, environmental hazards and sexual abuse, will return in 2006, its sponsors say. How much the bill will be amended to secure passage is still unclear, however, said Debra Gravert, chief of staff to bill author Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. Like Frommer’s AB 72, Pavley’s bill had the vote tally on AB 1700 stricken from the official record after it stalled in the Assembly. Steve Blackledge, legislative director for the California Public Interest Research Group, wondered how much further AB 1700 can be watered down before supporters lose interest. “At some point we’ve got to go, geesh, at most we’re talking about an eighth of a slice of pie with this bill,” he said. � Senate Bill 399 by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello. Already vetoed twice, this Consumer Attorneys-sponsored bill would allow doctors and hospitals to attach liens to judgments won by their Medi-Cal patients in third-party injury lawsuits. Under the bill, medical providers could seek full reimbursement for their services, and not just the reduced Medi-Cal rate. Insurers have fought SB 399′s provisions for years. But with physicians’ groups warning that many doctors will stop treating Medi-Cal patients after the state in January cuts reimbursement rates � already the lowest in the nation � bill backers hope that 2006 will be the year Schwarzenegger finally signs the legislation. For now, lawmakers seem content to test the political temperature of the Capitol for a few weeks before deciding what legislation to pursue again. “Some of the legislators have asked us whether they should bring some of the legislation back, and I haven’t had a clear answer for them,” said CalPIRG’s Blackledge. “At some level, you kind of go, is it worth [the effort] for us to get a third straight veto?” he said.

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