- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) California has enacted first-in-the-nation laws this year on family leave, auto emissions and stem-cell research, lending credence to the saying that wherever America is going, California will get there first.
California rivals the District as an epicenter of change because of its size (34.5 million people, more than any other state) and economic clout (sixth-largest economy in the world, with a gross state product of $1.3 trillion).
Lawmakers elsewhere look at California laws for direction.
"If it works in California, it is likely to work in states throughout the country," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics in Charlottesville. "The states are the laboratories for democracy, and California is the chief laboratory."
When the state passed the nation's first "lemon law" in 1982 to protect consumers who buy cars with serious defects, the measure became the model for similar laws in all 50 states. California enacted the nation's first ban on assault weapons in 1989; it was quickly adopted in six other states and led to a federal ban in 1994. California's 1970 Clean Air Act is still the toughest in the nation.
National firsts in California this year include a law explicitly allowing embryonic stem-cell research, the country's toughest auto emissions laws and a requirement that 20 percent of the state's power come from renewable energy sources by 2017.
Earlier this week, Gov. Gray Davis signed the nation's first comprehensive paid family leave law, which allows workers to leave their job for up to six weeks at 55 percent pay to care for a newborn, newly adopted child or sick family member.
Also, the gun-control movement successfully pushed a measure this year making California the first state to repeal gun manufacturers' special immunity against lawsuits. Mr. Davis signed the bill Wednesday.
"What we do here has tremendous impact both in the message we send and its immediate impact on the health and safety of a large group of Americans," said Luis Tolley of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Because of California's reputation as a liberal state, it often attracts interest groups that can't get what they want from Congress.
"Proponents of environmental laws and corporate reform that aren't willing to wait come to California," said Dan Jacobson, legislative analyst for the California Public Interest Research Group. "The Congress often looks to the states to figure out how to deal with important issues. It helps tremendously to pass important bills in California."
Similarly, lobbyists wanting to stop legislation in other states often look to California as their battleground. Nearly one-third of the estimated $565 million spent lobbying state lawmakers nationwide in 2000 was spent here, according to the Center for Public Integrity in Washington.
Auto-industry lobbyists launched a multimillion-dollar campaign this year in a failed bid to prevent the nation's first restrictions on carbon-dioxide emissions. California's automobile rules tend to become the standard for the entire industry. Because California is the nation's largest auto market, automakers sometimes find it too expensive or difficult to build a California-only car.
The banking industry was able to block legislation this year that would have allowed customers to prohibit companies from selling their personal information.
Sometimes California trends don't catch on.
A 1975 law that gives farmworkers unions the option of bringing their case before a judge if growers do not bargain fairly is still the only one of its kind in the nation.
"Among some legislators, the very fact that it comes from California makes it suspicious," said Karl Kurtz, director of state service at the National Conference of State Legislatures.


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