SACRAMENTO — The fires raging across California sparked a squabble at the state Capitol on Thursday as Assembly Democrats battled Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and his allies in the lower house over money the governor cut from a fire prevention bill in July.
With a 41-34 vote, the Assembly declined to override a Deukmejian veto of $2 million in fire prevention funds. Two-thirds majorities of both the 80-member Assembly and 40-seat Senate are required to override a gubernatorial veto.
The bill in question, authored by Assemblyman Byron D. Sher (D-Palo Alto), would have authorized $3.7 million for fire prevention and suppression, as an augmentation to the state's $250-million firefighting budget. Although it passed both the Senate and Assembly by wide bipartisan margins, Deukmejian cut the appropriation to $1.7 million with a line-item veto.
In his veto message of July 30, the governor said, "The reduced appropriation will provide adequate funding for additional fire protection staff for the remainder of the fire season."
While conceding that restoring the appropriation would have little effect on the fires now burning, Sher said the money would leave California better prepared for the rest of the fire season.
In asking for the veto override, Sher said "the governor was dead wrong" in cutting the appropriation. "Think of the disaster erupting around us. We should not have to rely on fire crews from New York and New England to bail us out next time," he said, referring to the brigades of firefighters who have traveled to California from as far off as Maine to assist in battling the blazes.
While Democratic members fired up the soft-spoken Sher with cries of "Go get 'em, Byron!" GOP assemblymen roasted the override effort as an attempt to blame the rash of wildfires on Deukmejian.
"This is the ultimate in cheap shots," said Assemblyman William P. Baker (R-Danville). Added Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), "The only thing (Sher) hasn't done is say the governor started the fires."
Deukmejian blasted Sher for seeking to override his veto. Told of Sher's effort, the governor, who had just concluded a briefing on the fire situation with state forestry officials, said: "I thought he had a little more class than . . . to use this tragic situation for some kind of political advantage."
Sher replied in kind: "I thought it wasn't very classy when he vetoed the $2 million out of my bill."