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April 3, 2007                  

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SACRAMENTO - After reviewing more than 250 bill ideas from within and outside of his district, State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) today announced this year’s winners in his “There Oughta Be A Law” contest.

The annual competition invites Californians to submit ideas for new state legislation.  This marks the sixth year for Simitian’s contest.  During the past five years, ten winning entries have been signed into law.  “This contest is proof positive that one person can make a difference,” said Simitian.

The first winning entry will allow consumers to safely dispose of their unused prescription drugs instead of the current practice of tossing drugs into the trash, or flushing drugs down the toilet, which contaminates our drinking water.  The second winning idea is to prohibit credit card contracts and other consumer contracts from including a “universal default” provision, which unilaterally adds higher interest rates, fees, penalties or damages.  The third idea will help voters to find polling place locations in their neighborhoods by ensuring that the size of election precincts reflects absentee voting patterns.

Environmentally Safe Disposal of Prescription Drugs - (SB 966) - Rebecca Kassel and Abe Binder

Rebecca Kassel, a 17-year-old Santa Cruz County high school student, and Mountain View resident Abe Binder were both concerned that consumers don’t have a safe and responsible way of disposing of their unused prescription drugs.  “Right now, people throw their prescription drugs in the trash or flush them down the toilet, which contaminates our drinking water and harms marine life,” explained Kassel in her winning submission.

Asked why he submitted his proposal, Binder said, “The next generation should have access to clean water, air, and food.  I submitted my proposal because whatever cheap, simple, and effective measures we as citizens can come up with to protect California’s water should be vigorously pursued.”

SB 966 will require pharmacies to have a system in place by July 1, 2008 to collect and dispose of unused prescription drugs dropped off by consumers. In 2002, the United States Geological Survey sampled 139 streams across 30 states and found that 80 percent had measurable concentrations of prescription and nonprescription drugs, steroids, and reproductive hormones.  Exposure, even to low levels of pharmaceuticals, has been shown to have negative effects on fish and other marine life and may have negative effects on human health.

Simitian, who is Chair of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, said, “These two folks have suggested that our state ought to have a coordinated, environmentally safe program for disposing drugs.  I absolutely agree.”

Simitian added, “Two years ago, I selected a winning idea from a group of Stanford University medical students to help redistribute unused prescription drugs to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.  But not all drugs are in a condition to be redistributed - some just have to be thrown away.  SB 966 is about giving folks an easy and environmentally sound way to do that.”

Helping Families to Avoid Further Debt (SB 968) - Richard Engfer

Concerned about families that find themselves in overwhelming debt, San Jose resident Richard Engfer proposed that credit card companies and other lenders be prohibited from assessing interest rates, fees and other penalties based on debt to another company.  “My concern is that people may find they will never be able to pay off their balance because of the high rate of interest.  Add to that the other charges - late fees, maxing-out fees, etc., and it is easy to see a person in ‘debtor’s prison’,” said Engfer.

Simitian said, “Folks in debt are often caught in a vicious cycle.  They are nowhere near resolving past debts when they find themselves subjected to financial penalties that capitalize on their vulnerability.  We need a system that is fair and encourages people to regain financial stability instead of propelling them further into debt.”

SB 968 prohibits the inclusion of a “universal default” provision in California contracts, including credit card contracts. “Universal default” is a condition in which a fee, financial penalty, change in terms, or damage is automatically assessed on a new contract based on behavior with another lender.  For example, a credit card bank can raise a person’s interest rate automatically if he or she is late on another credit card or on a house, phone, or car payment.

“This is the heart of the matter,” said Simitian.  “To change the rules of the game on a credit card holder who is paying his bills on time because of an issue with an unrelated debt is clearly unfair.”

Helping Californians to Vote in Their Neighborhoods (SB 967) - Dennis McBride

While researching the current law about polling precincts, Redwood City resident Dennis McBride found that the State requires 1,000 registered voters to vote at a polling site.  Once the 1,000 mark is hit, elections officials must split voting precincts. McBride explained, “Once you start splitting precincts, you split neighborhoods including mine.  I now vote 2.5 miles away from my home versus .5 miles away.”

SB 967 expands precinct sizes where appropriate by authorizing county elections officials to subtract the number of permanent absentee voters from the total number of voters in a precinct.  “The goal is to help make sure we don’t have empty polling places in one part of town while voters are waiting in long lines in another part of town,” said Simitian.

McBride, who also serves on the Redwood City School Board added, “This bill will allow families to continue to vote in their neighborhoods while allowing county officials to be more efficient.”

Asked why he selected this idea, Simitian said, “This is a good government bill.  It’s just that simple.  It’s about giving people easier access to the voting process.”

Commenting on the more than 250 entries the contest drew, Simitian added, “I’m gratified that this invitation to participate in the legislative process continues to strike a chord with people in my district.”

The winners will have their bill ideas introduced as legislation, have the opportunity to testify at a committee hearing on their bill, have lunch with Senator Simitian at the State Capitol, and also receive a California State flag that has flown over the Capitol.  “But the real prize,” said Simitian, “is knowing that your idea has the potential of affecting 37 million Californians.”

Since Simitian created the contest six years ago, other legislators have launched “There Oughta Be a Law” contests in California and around the country.  Simitian said, “I’m delighted.  I support anything we can do to spread the notion of public participation in the legislative process.”