SACRAMENTO — The state Court of Appeal, in an opinion ordering restoration of the Cal/OSHA worker safety program, has placed potentially far-reaching limits on Gov. George Deukmejian's ability to continue using one of his most powerful governing tools: the line-item veto.
Deukmejian announced late Tuesday that he will appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.
"The issues raised in this decision go far beyond the question of whether California's worker safety program will be administered by the federal or the state government. As the court itself acknowledged, the case involves a fundamental question of separation of powers," Deukmejian said in an announcement released by his office.
The appellate court, in a ruling handed down Monday but not released until Tuesday, said that Deukmejian usurped legislative authority and had no right "to terminate Cal/OSHA" when he decimated the program by vetoing a $7-million appropriation last July.
Specifically, the court said Deukmejian could reduce or eliminate individual appropriations but could not use the line-item veto to thwart the Legislature's power.
"Our state is founded upon the constitutional principle that the fundamental powers of state government are allocated to separate branches of state government," said Justice Coleman Blease, who wrote the 60-page opinion unanimously approved by the three-judge panel. "The attempted exercise of a legislative power not conferred upon the governor is a nullity."
In a line-item veto, the governor can eliminate or reduce money in a bill without vetoing the entire legislation.
The appeal court, in effect, gave its blessing to a strategy used by the Legislature to protect the Cal/OSHA appropriation. The strategy involved lumping the Cal/OSHA money in with all other sums to be spent by the Department of Industrial Relations.
Elsewhere in the appropriations bill, lawmakers included language specifying that the state had to meet its statutory obligation to fund Cal/OSHA.
The court said the governor was within his rights to reduce the overall departmental appropriation but could not strike out the language requiring that money be provided for Cal/OSHA.
If it stands, the ruling would give the Legislature a powerful new tool to keep governors from using line-item veto power to eliminate specific programs.
Deukmejian criticized the appeal court ruling as "a decision of first impression, made without legal precedent."
He added, "We have no option but to pursue an appeal to the state's highest court."
Until there is a resolution of Deukmejian's appeal by the Supreme Court, the Cal/OSHA program will remain in limbo.
Earlier Tuesday, Deukmejian criticized the ruling during a session with reporters at D. Russell Parks Junior High School in Fullerton where he was participating in an anti-drug program.
"It points up one thing, and that is how difficult it is in government to get rid of anything, even though there's duplication," the governor said. "Once you start a government program, it almost becomes impossible to try to end it, despite the fact the taxpayers are paying for a federal program and then paying for a state program."
Deukmejian, in vetoing $7 million from the Department of Industrial Relations budget last July, eliminated 357 jobs. The governor argued that the agency's role in enforcing health and worker safety laws in private industry duplicated a similar occupational health and safety program run by the federal government, and he sought to turn over full responsibility to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The state Supreme Court, with a majority of its members having been appointed by Deukmejian, is more conservative than the three-judge panel that issued the Cal/OSHA ruling. But despite the conservative majority on the higher court, the Administration might find rough going.
Two weeks ago, in an opinion that heavily influenced the judges hearing the Cal/OSHA case, the state Supreme Court used strong language in declaring that Deukmejian misused his veto authority by selectively trimming money from a welfare program.
Deukmejian, perhaps more than any other recent governor, has used his veto power to reduce appropriations and kill legislation sent to him by the Democratic-dominated Legislature. In his first five years, Deukmejian rejected more bills sent to him then Ronald Reagan, a fellow Republican, did in his eight years as governor. Deukmejian has cut well over $2 billion in appropriations since he took office in 1983.
Ralph Abascal, a California Rural Legal Assistance attorney who filed the Cal/OSHA case on behalf of six farm workers, said he thinks the opinion will have a far-reaching effect on the governor's veto authority. He said the last three governors, Reagan, Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Deukmejian, have increasingly expanded use of the veto.
"Each of them grabbed off more and more power through the inappropriate use of the governor's veto power," Abascal said.