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Calif. lawmakers split on new rules preventing kids from farming tobacco

File: Lucille Roybal-Allard speaks during "The Harvest" screening at the Rayburn House Office Building on Sept. 15, 2010 in Washington.
Kris Connor/Getty Images
File: Lucille Roybal-Allard speaks during "The Harvest" screening at the Rayburn House Office Building on Sept. 15, 2010 in Washington.

The federal government is proposing new child labor rules for kids who work on farms. California lawmakers are divided over the rules, but the split doesn’t follow the usual partisan lines.

The proposed new rules from the Department of Labor would prohibit workers younger than 16 from farming tobacco. They’d also outlaw texting while operating farm equipment.

But Democratic Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard of Los Angeles says the most important change would keep pesticides out of the hands of the youngest farm workers.

"We’re talking about children," she says. "Their bodies are growing, they’re developing and science has shown that working with dangerous chemicals have a direct impact on that growth both physically and mentally." Roybal-Allard sent a letter supporting the rule change to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

But fellow Democrat Dennis Cardoza of Modesto wants the secretary to slow down. "I grew up on a farm and I planted sweet potatoes as a child," he says, "and frankly, the experience was pretty useful. As I now serve in Congress, those memories still serve me as quite useful. Hard work isn’t so bad as long as it’s done side by side with your parents."

Cardoza is one of more than 70 lawmakers who sent another letter to the labor secretary, asking her to extend the comment period on the proposed rule changes. Cardoza says he doesn’t want to expose kids to anything inappropriate, but he does support what he calls a more “thoughtful” and “accurate” approach to the pesticide ban. He admits that he grew up in an era long before the federal Environmental Protection Agency reviewed pesticides, but, "I think I turned out okay. I don’t glow in the dark or anything like that."

Seven Californians — two Democrats, five Republicans — signed that "go slow" letter. All represent farming or ranching districts.

L.A. lawmaker Roybal-Allard denies that this is a case of rural versus city lawmakers. "I think this is an American values issue," she says. "Children need to have equal protections under our law and that is not the case with children in agriculture."

The labor secretary received more than 18,000 letters, emails and phone calls on the proposed new rules before the comment period ended on Thursday. The Labor Department would not speculate how long it would take to evaluate those comments — or when the new rules might take effect.