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Foreclosure bills will get legislative hearings
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — The Legislature started moving ahead Thursday with bills intended to protect homeowners in the foreclosure process, setting up a potential showdown between the state attorney general and mortgage lenders.

Among the changes sought by Attorney General Kamala Harris is one that would allow homeowners to challenge foreclosure proceedings in court, a step the state banking association says would reward delinquent borrowers.

Harris also wants to write into state law some of the temporary provisions of a nationwide mortgage settlement she helped negotiate with the nation's top five banks in February. They would ban "dual-track foreclosures" by prohibiting lenders from filing notices of default while they also are considering alternatives to foreclosures. Banks also would be prohibited from approving foreclosures without properly reviewing the documentation, a process known as "robo-signing."

Over Republicans' objections, the Senate approved an Assembly bill that will be used to create a conference committee to advance the major bills sought by Harris.

Seven of the bills in what Harris is calling her Homeowners Bill of Rights package cleared their first committees this week. But the measures most opposed by the lending industry were never considered in either chamber's banking committee because they lacked support from Republicans and business-oriented Democrats.

Organizations representing lenders and businesses objected that her bills would expand state law beyond the provisions in the national banking settlement, which will expire in three years. They contend that Harris is seeking to address with permanent legislation problems that lenders say were temporary abuses of the system.

Among the other provisions in Harris' bills are requirements that lenders prove to homeowners that they have a right to foreclose on the property before continuing. The state would also create a new Office of Homeowner Protection to aid borrowers.

She also proposes to increase borrowers' due process rights. Lenders would have to provide a single point of contact starting on July 1, 2013, for borrowers who want to discuss foreclosures or refinancing.

Banking and business groups said in a letter to lawmakers last week that the measures, particularly the provision letting individual borrowers go to court, would slow the state's economic and housing market recovery. What are intended by Harris as homeowner protections would "result in a de facto moratorium on foreclosures," the California Bankers Association said.

Harris and her staff declined comment as they left the private office of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg shortly after the vote.

"What we need is real action for people who aren't thinking about conference committees versus standing committees. They want the state to pass the laws that provide them with real relief and allow them to stay in their homes," Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in an interview after the Senate's procedural sidestep.

"We've had several years of failed attempts to enact these important protections but this year is different because we have the (national bank) settlement," added his spokeswoman, Alicia Trost.

Republicans who object to the provisions in the stalled legislation tried without success to block the bill.

Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, vice chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said the move disempowers moderate Democrats on the banking committees who had sided with Republicans in objecting to Harris' bills.

"It really raises serious questions about to what lengths this body will go to jam through legislation," Blakeslee said.