California lawmakers hope to stymie ballot initiative that would hand taxpayers the bill for lead paint cleanup
Liam Dillon, Los Angeles Times
A group of state lawmakers announced legislation Thursday to fight a proposed November ballot measure that would allow three national paint companies to hand California taxpayers the bill for cleaning up hazardous lead paint in homes.
The six bills, introduced by Democratic members of the Assembly from across the state, would add legal protections for homeowners with lead paint in their residences, increase the number of lead paint inspectors and make it easier to sue the companies, among other proposals.
"For too long, paint companies have been able to dodge responsibility for their actions," said Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Alameda at a Thursday news conference.
The saga over lead paint cleanup in California began in 2000 when 10 cities and counties sued ConAgra, NL Industries and Sherwin-Williams alleging that lead paint was a public nuisance and that the companies promoted its use even after they knew the material could cause negative health effects, especially in children. Lead paint became illegal to use in homes in 1978.
The case dragged on through November 2017, when a state appellate court ruling largely upheld a lower court decision that put the companies on the hook for an estimated $700 million in cleanup costs. This year, the state Supreme Court declined to hear the companies' appeal.
Shortly after the November appellate court ruling, the three companies filed a proposed ballot initiative that would overturn that decision and insulate them from future legal challenges. The measure would also authorize a $2-billion bond so that state taxpayers would finance cleaning up lead paint, mold and other environmental dangers in homes and schools.
The companies have argued their plan would remove more hazardous materials and cover the entire state rather than solely the 10 cities and counties affected by the court judgment. The three companies have so far donated $6 million to their campaign and must collect 365,880 valid voter signatures to secure a place on the fall ballot.
Once news of the paint companies' efforts became public in January, state lawmakers began formulating plans to try to stymie the initiative. Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), who is leading the legislative effort, said Thursday he was "offended to hear about the politics being played by the paint companies."
One measure, Assembly Bill 3009, would add a new fee on paint manufacturers, creating a fund for residents to tap for lead paint cleanups. That bill would only go into effect if the November ballot initiative passes, and its intent is to provide more than enough funding to cover the principal and interest the state would need to pay off the bond, said Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), the legislation's author.
"We don't need to pay for the mistakes of the paint industry," Quirk said.
Kendall Klingler, a spokeswoman for the paint companies' initiative, said that the companies would welcome new legislation in the wake of the appellate court judgment, but added that the lawmakers' proposals would still leave homeowners with lead paint on their properties at financial and legal risk.
"While trial lawyers who brought the lawsuit are looking for a way to line their pockets, millions of California homeowners will face increased financial liabilities, decreased property values, forced public disclosures and the choice of submitting to government inspections or being placed on a public database for refusing an inspection," Klingler said.
Activist groups joined the lawmakers at the Thursday press conference. Ed Howard, an attorney with the Children's Advocacy Institute, said the companies' decision decades ago to continue selling lead paint despite knowing the health problems associated with it "spits in the face of God."
"What the companies are doing now — lawyering up, playing politics, lying to homeowners — is as bad," Howard said.
All six bills, which are expected to be formally introduced Friday, will be debated in their first committee hearings in the coming months. They have to pass by the end of August, when the Legislature recesses for the year.
The bills authored by Assembly Democrats are:
- AB 2073 (Chiu): Adds legal protections so homeowners won’t get sued if they have lead paint in their homes and try to participate in a court-ordered abatement program.
- AB 2074 (Bonta): Makes it easier for homeowners to sue paint companies by shifting the burden of proof so that companies would have to show they didn’t sell or promote lead paint, rather than making homeowners determine the companies did.
- AB 2803 (Monique Limón of Santa Barbara): Adds further legal protections for homeowners so that they don’t get sued if they attempt to clean up lead paint on their properties.
- AB 2934 (Mark Stone of Scotts Valley): Increases the number of lead paint inspectors across the state.
- AB 2995 (Wendy Carrillo of Los Angeles): Extends the statute of limitations giving homeowners more time to sue companies for lead-related harm.
- AB 3009 (Quirk): Adds a new fee — for an amount yet to be announced — on manufacturers for all paint sold in California. The fee, which would require a two-thirds supermajority vote of the Legislature to pass, would only go into effect if the November ballot initiative passes.