SACRAMENTO — A key Assembly committee Wednesday approved a bill that would give Gov. George Deukmejian the new toxics agency he has been demanding, but in a form that Administration officials described as "totally unacceptable."
On a 9-4 vote along party lines, the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee endorsed the measure, setting the stage for another political confrontation with the Republican governor on the hazardous waste issue.
Even before the hearing, Gordon Cologne, a former Republican lawmaker who has led the Administration's fight to establish the department, asserted: "The governor won't sign it. They (legislators) know very well that he'll veto this."
Despite the threat of a veto, Democrats appeared ready to speed their plan through the Assembly. Prior to the Wednesday committee action, they had scheduled a hearing for today before the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.
"I'm expecting that we will pass this," said Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte), who chairs the Assembly toxics committee.
The Democrats' election-year proposal to create a new department of waste management and California waste commission could be approved by the full Assembly as early as next Thursday. It would then go directly to the Senate floor, where a simple majority vote would send it to the governor.
Far more than a mere reshuffling of the bureaucracy, the Democratic proposal by Sen. Art Torres (D-South Pasadena) gives the director of the proposed department authority to levy fines and issue orders without first holding public hearings when a threat to the public health or environment is imminent.
It also contains several features that Deukmejian has rejected in the past. For example, it would place the new waste management department, as well as the state's water and air quality boards, under a reorganized Environmental Affairs Agency, which would be responsible for coordinating most enforcement of anti-pollution laws.
The Democratic plan would establish a waste commission composed of seven full-time members to guide the new department. Deukmejian, by contrast, is seeking a somewhat weaker commission of 13 part-time members. The Democrats' plan would eliminate three nine-member regional boards that would hear appeals of department decisions under the Deukmejian proposal.
The Torres bill would impose strict conflict-of-interest rules on commission members, barring from serving those who have earned more than 10% of their income from regulated industries in the previous two years.
Republicans have attacked the plan as political, seeing it as an attempt to upstage Deukmejian during an election year, when toxic waste cleanup is viewed as a high-priority concern of voters. They contend that Assembly Democrats are trying to help Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the Democrat likely to oppose Deukmejian in the fall election.
"I think the sewage problems in Los Angeles are really an embarrassment to Bradley," said Assembly Republican leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, citing the fines levied against the City of Los Angeles for sewage dumped into Santa Monica Bay. "Bradley doesn't want the Duke (Deukmejian) to be able to show leadership in the field of toxics, when Bradley is so vulnerable."
By presenting Deukmejian with what they consider a reasonable plan--even though he will probably veto it--the Democrats have indicated that they believe they can blunt the governor's claims that they have obstructed him in cleaning up toxic wastes.
Deukmejian's handling of hazardous waste problems has come under attack in recent months with the release of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency audit critical of the Administration's contracting practices. An FBI probe of state cleanup contracts at three federal Superfund sites has raised additional questions.
The Democratic plan signals the abandonment by Assembly Democrats of an earlier agreement on toxic wastes that they had negotiated with Deukmejian--a compromise that was put into limbo during the waning hours of the legislative session last September, when the Democrats refused to put the measure establishing the toxics agency to a vote unless Republican lawmakers agreed to support an unrelated bill.
Within hours, Deukmejian accused Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and other Democratic leaders of "political extortion," and he has continued to attack them for failing to give him the tools he says he needs to deal with the state's growing hazardous waste cleanup problems.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Deukmejian called for the Assembly to approve the original compromise. He charged that the Democrats reneged on the agreement and asserted that the action raised questions "about how we're going to be able to do business around here."
Torres said the governor's chief of staff, Steven A. Merksamer, told him that Deukmejian is unwilling to negotiate.
"I told (Merksamer) that we need to work together to develop a bipartisan plan that excludes 1986 gubernatorial politics. . . . But the governor is so incensed at the political process, that he does not see any way he could even entertain amendments," he said.