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For the governor’s punitive damages proposal, it’s death by a thousand cuts. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger shocked lawyers last month when he tucked into his budget proposal a plan to have the state take 75 percent of punitive damage awards, which he said would raise $450 million. The state’s independent legislative analyst said $200 million was more likely, a figure slashed again on Tuesday to about $60 million. The true haul could be even less, the analyst pointed out, given that damage awards are often negotiated into settlements and the fact that the governor’s proposal included no mechanism for the state to know about or collect its share. Those and other questions have led to speculation that the proposal is all but dead. It’s still slated to go to conference committee, but Democratic leaders have said they want it dealt with separately, through the legislative process — particularly since the governor’s proposal also calls for limiting punitive damage awards to once per defendant. “These are policy issues that should be vetted during a discussion of policy issues,” said Susan Wierbinski, a spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Martha Escutia. James Sturdevant, president of the Consumer Attorneys of California and an opponent of the punitive damages proposal, said he believes that the plan presented in the May budget proposal “is totally unacceptable to the legislative leadership” — particularly the one-time-only clause. “The question is, how much is the governor willing to fight for this,” Sturdevant said. So far, the answer seems to be: not much. At an informational hearing Tuesday on the proposal before the Assembly Judiciary Committee, attendees were surprised to see the governor’s budget staff refer questions to a lobbyist for the Civil Justice Association of California, a business-backed group. CJAC President John Sullivan said that doesn’t mean the proposal originated with his group, nor that the governor’s office isn’t committed to it. “The idea was presented to us,” said Sullivan, “and we offered comments on details we believe would make it work better, but the basic plan in its entirety was presented to us.” Sullivan doesn’t welcome the idea of ditching the one-time-only provision. “We would certainly have to go through and really take another look,” he said. “It’s an important part of the package in its entirety.”

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