State Assembly Rejects Bill to Increase Pesticide Fines

Workers harvest cantaloupes on a farm on Aug. 22, 2014, in Firebaugh, California. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Legislation that would expand the enforcement power of California's pesticide regulator and increase penalties for farming companies that violate the state's agricultural chemical laws failed in the state Assembly late Monday.

Assembly Bill 1419, authored by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, would have given the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) the authority to issue $25,000 fines for serious violations of the laws. Currently, county agricultural commissioners can levy fines up to $5,000.

The legislation needed 41 votes to pass but got only 35. The bill garnered significant support from Democrats in committee, but 18 members of the party voted against it or declined to vote when it got to the Assembly floor.

"I was surprised by the number of colleagues who did not vote for this bill that is meant to protect farmworkers," said Quirk in an emailed statement Tuesday.

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The assemblyman's office had worked with state regulators and opponents of the legislation for more than a year.

Quirk was joined by advocates for agricultural employees in expressing concern that the bill was killed.

"It's disappointing that the California Legislature has failed to stand up for some of our most vulnerable populations, particularly farmworkers and children in agricultural communities that are affected by pesticide drift," said Paul Towers, organizing director at Pesticide Action Network North America, in an interview.

"As California looks to stand up to the Trump administration and show that it is the shining beacon of protecting immigrants and vulnerable communities ... this is a disappointing end for a bill that would have meant better protections for farmworkers from hazardous pesticides," Towers said.

Towers and other farmworker advocates had hoped recent attention placed on four separate chemical drift incidents in the Central Valley and Central Coast, which are believed to have sickened more than 150 agricultural employees, would push lawmakers to approve the legislation.

But the bill faced opposition from some of California's agricultural industry groups, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, which questioned whether the fine increases would have been effective.

"We believe current policies give county agricultural commissioners and DPR the authority they need to take appropriate action to enforce pesticide safety rules," said Cynthia Cory, the federation's director of environmental affairs, in a statement.

"We remain committed to assuring the safety and health of farmers, their employees and neighbors," Cory said.

The timing of the vote seemed to catch Quirk's office by surprise.

"We thought we had one more day to confirm votes," said Quirk's aide, Tomasa Dueñas, in an email. The office was told late Monday afternoon that the legislation would come up for a vote.

"Unfortunately the bill didn't get enough votes to pass off the floor. AB 1419 is dead for the year," Dueñas said.

The vote took place earlier than expected and legislators did not have enough time to review the measure, according to Towers.

The bill sailed through two committee hearings but garnered 26 "no" votes, and 16 members of the Assembly -- all Democrats, some of whom represent more rural parts of the state -- declined to vote yes or no on the bill when it came to a floor vote.

"Frankly, we did not have enough time to educate them on the issue," Towers said. "Bills were moved more quickly than maybe they should have been and weren't given the proper discourse."

Most members who voted for the legislation were Democrats. However, Assemblyman Brian Maienschein (R-San Diego) voted for the measure, and two Democrats, Elk Grove Assemblyman Jim Cooper and Brentwood Assemblyman Jim Frazier, voted against it.

The Department of Pesticide Regulation was the bill's sponsor.

"DPR is still very much committed to this issue, and we will explore other options to make this a reality," agency spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe said in an email.