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Tussle Over Toxic -Waste Control Isn't Purely Politics

January 22, 1986|WILLIAM KAHRL | William Kahrl writes about state issues from Sacramento

Gov. George Deukmejian and the Legislature now seem headed for a direct confrontation over toxic-waste control. The governor says that it's all a matter of partisan politics. This is an interpretation that defies the history of this controversy and, worse, belittles the substance of a crisis of the governor's own making.

For three years the Deukmejian Administration regularly put out press releases touting its success in meeting the threat of toxic wastes. All those reports turned out to be false. After several efforts to correct the claims fell flat, it became evident that the Administration had no idea what had been going on.

The governor responded at first with a reorganization proposal that would have partly dismantled the state's most effective pollution-control agency, the Water Resources Control Board, and vested complete control over toxics in the Health and Welfare Agency, whose incompetent and possibly fraudulent mismanagement of toxics is now the subject of multiple federal and state investigations.

After the defeat of that plan and the departure of the people responsible, Deukmejian brought in Gordon Cologne to prepare a far more sophisticated proposal. Now the Legislature has put forward an alternative, which the governor has threatened to veto.

Both the legislative and Cologne plans would leave the Water Resources Control Board more or less intact. Both would deal the Health and Welfare Agency out of the toxics business. But between them stand three issues central to the governor's determination to hang tight to the Cologne proposal.

The first and most important issue has to do with the composition of the board that each plan would create to administer toxics programs. Deukmejian wants a part-time body whose majority would be drawn from the same industries that the board is supposed to regulate. The Legislature's plan would impose the same standards for preventing conflicts of interest in the appointment of board members that have worked so well at ensuring the independence and impartiality of the Water Resources Control Board. The governor's representatives have made it clear that he will veto the Legislature's plan on the conflict-of-interest issue alone.

The second key difference has to do with the authority of the two boards. In the companion legislation controlling the Cologne plan's implementation, the Legislature has taken care to strip Deukmejian's part-time, industry-dominated board of any real power so as to ensure that it won't be able to undermine the effectiveness of any programs already in place.

The Legislature's alternative would create a full-time board with broad powers. And it would function in the context of a fully coordinated program, combining the state's existing efforts to control air, water and toxic-waste pollution in a new Environmental Affairs Agency.

The prospect of that much regulatory coordination creates the third, albeit latent, issue in this dispute. Agribusiness is adamantly opposed to the creation of an Environmental Affairs Agency for fear that its success might someday bring pesticides under the same regime of effective control.

All three of these points of difference provide ample ground for debate. But they are most emphatically not petty partisan issues, as Deukmejian wants us to believe. They go to the heart of what good government and an effective legislature are all about.

As the evidence of mismanagement has mounted over the last few months, Deukmejian has been trying to buy time. He has convened a special investigative commission and invited the Legislature to conduct its own inquiries. But none of those reports will be ready until the middle of the year, which would give the governor a fine excuse for doing nothing until after the election.

By pressing the Legislature's alternative plan, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown has denied Deukmejian the time that he needs to dodge the toxics issue. Brown has taken Deukmejian's initiative and doubled it, sending back a stronger, more effective program than the governor sought, daring him to enact it or explain clearly why he is afraid to do so.

Of course there is partisan advantage to be gained from backing the governor into a corner this way. But there are public benefits as well in the form of stronger laws and better programs, or at least a lot less executive mushmouthing. This is politics as it ought to be played.

If it comes down to a veto, Deukmejian's explanation should make for interesting reading. He can't very well come out for conflicts of interest. He can't claim that the Cologne plan is more streamlined or efficient because it would divide toxics-control authority between a powerless new panel and the existing Water Resources Control Board. And he can't even base a veto on economics, because the legislative analyst has already determined that the Cologne plan would cost more than the Legislature's.

In the end he will probably blame it all on partisan politics, just as he has done in every other defeat that he has suffered since taking office. The sad thing is that it will probably play that way on the evening news.

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