Back in black, er, uh, red

Oh yeah, the budget: Like a partier waking at noon after a big night on the town, the California Legislature creaked back to life last Thursday, slowly waking from a fitful slumber that began in early September with passage of the state budget, if you can call that election-related stall tactic a budget.

In the governor’s office, Gray Davis met with Assemblyman Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, and the other Big Five legislative leaders to discuss how to address the $21 billion hole in the budget. The massive shortfall was caused in large part by playing political games with the current budget instead of making the tough decisions to raise taxes or cut popular programs, for fear that such actions would turn into attack ads that might cost the legislators re-election.

On Thursday, Davis also announced a special legislative session on December 9 to deal with the budget, which means confronting new legislators with the toughest of decisions before they’ve even learned their way around the building.

Stupid legislator tricks: While Davis was talking turkey with the old pros, the Assembly floor was filled with newbie lawmakers who got an orientation. Meanwhile, on the Senate side of the building, the only sign of life was Senator Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, and a room filled with county prosecutors.

Bites isn’t sure whether Speier has a thing for David Letterman or what, but she convened the Senate Select Committee on Government Oversight that she chairs around another one of her top-10 lists. (She ended the legislative session in September with her “top 10 reasons to vote against SB 773,” her consumer privacy bill that had been gutted under pressure from banks.)

Last week’s hearing was entitled “The Top Ten Consumer Complaints—Revisited.” Apparently, she staged a similar top-10 hearing back in 1995. This woman has got to get some new material and better writers or else start paying royalties to Letterman.

Unfortunately for California consumers, there also have been few changes to the fact that they continue to get screwed and scammed by everyone from small-time con artists to some of the biggest corporations operating in California.

County prosecutors and state officials testified about the top consumer complaints to the state, which included identity theft, Internet fraud, phony prizes, negative option contracts, phone company fraud, contractor fraud, auto-repair fraud and improprieties involving auto purchasing and leasing.

“The discouraging thing is some things we keep hearing about,” lamented Kathleen Hamilton, director of the Department of Consumer Affairs, a testament to how the state’s tough-on-crime efforts have hit street criminals far harder than white-collar criminals.

One relatively new realm on Speier’s list—at number 11, although she didn’t let that alter her top-10 motif—was women’s gifting clubs, like the Women Helping Women pyramid scheme now being prosecuted by Sacramento County’s assistant chief deputy district attorney, Albert Locher, who was on hand to testify.

The bottom line that Bites gleaned from all this: As long as we have an economic system based on maximizing profits and squeezing the most out of consumers, this is a list we’ll keep revisiting for years to come, and one that’s likely to keep getting longer.

Busy signal: When the state does manage to come up with good ways of protecting consumers from predatory behaviors, business interests always seem to find ways of killing or delaying them. One example was Speier’s privacy bill; another is the state’s “Do Not Call” list for telephone solicitations.

Despite the fact that most of us hate telemarketers, it’s taken years to get this bill—Senate Bill 771, in its finally approved form—signed into law. Starting January 1, Californians were supposed to be able to sign up on the do-not-call list, which would mean telemarketers who violated their wishes would be fined $1,000 a pop.

Well, federal regulators started toying with the idea of doing such a list on the national level, so, while Attorney General Bill Lockyer waits to see what happens—an announcement is planned for late December—his people say implementation in California has been delayed until April 1.

That’s April 1, as in April Fools’ Day. Coincidence? We’ll see.