SACRAMENTO — Signaling the end of a months-long struggle, the Senate on Thursday approved and sent to Gov. George Deukmejian legislation that would allow Caltrans to contract with private engineers to work on new highway projects.
The measure by Sen. Marian Bergeson, R-Newport Beach, is intended to speed freeway construction by giving Caltrans the flexibility to move ahead more quickly on projects as money becomes available.
The bill was the subject of both a highly partisan struggle and an intraparty GOP battle at the end of the 1987 legislative session because of amendments added to the bill by Democrats. The amendments require Caltrans to try to give at least 15% of the engineering work to companies owned by minorities and 5% to companies owned by women.
Those affirmative-action goals led conservative Assembly Republicans, including several from Orange County, to oppose the measure despite strong support it enjoyed from the business community. Some business leaders retaliated by threatening to withhold campaign contributions from the GOP lawmakers.
But four months later, the political spotlight has shifted to other issues, and now it appears that the Assembly Republicans will not lobby the governor to veto the measure, which business representatives and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree is badly needed to help unclog freeways throughout the state.
The Senate approved the bill on a 28-5 vote after a brief discussion, with only one member--Democrat Milton Marks of San Francisco--arguing against the measure. Marks said he opposed the bill because he believed that it would deprive public employees of jobs and result in lower wages for engineers who help plan and build the state's freeway projects.
Others said that despite their general opposition to the idea of contracting out state work to the private sector they would vote for Bergeson's bill in the hope of cutting Caltrans' backlog of construction projects. Nobody objected to the affirmative-action amendments.
"There is a crisis in the state of California," said Sen. Wadie P. Deddeh (D-Chula Vista), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "We need all the employees we have in the state transportation system, and we need more. We are going to need every (engineer) we can get."
Under the bill, Caltrans would be required to hire one state employee for every private engineer it hires as a consultant. The department would also be required to reach agreements whenever possible to have local government employees do the work for the state. And the bill prohibits the displacement of any permanent or temporary Caltrans worker by the hiring of a contract employee.
"The bill is critically needed by Caltrans to expeditiously provide the many needed highway improvements throughout the state," Bergeson said.
Although Deukmejian is expected to sign the bill, a spokeswoman said Thursday that he has not seen the measure in its final form and will withhold judgment until it reaches his desk.
Thursday's calm Senate session was a far cry from last fall, when the bill, after it was amended in the Assembly, was caught up in partisan wrangling between Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and the Assembly's Republican leadership. At one point, action on several important Orange County measures was stalled while the two sides argued over the measure behind closed doors.
The major issue debated publicly was the amendment, suggested by Brown, requiring Caltrans to attempt to direct at least 15% of the engineering work to minority-owned firms and 5% to companies owned by women. Assembly Republicans, who oppose affirmative-action quotas in principle, opposed the bill after the Democrats amended it, even though they support the idea of hiring private sector companies to do work normally performed by the government.
Although the Assembly approved the bill in September and returned it to the Senate, Bergeson did not seek a Senate vote on it then because she feared the Assembly Republicans would urge Deukmejian to veto the measure.
The delay in passage of the bill angered several prominent Orange County business leaders, and George Argyros, president of the Costa Mesa-based Arnel Development Co., and several other builders later boycotted an Orange County fund-raising event sponsored by Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale.
Nolan could not be reached for comment Thursday. A Nolan ally, Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), said in a recent interview that he still opposes the bill but would not lobby Deukmejian to veto it.
"I cast my vote according to my conscience, and that's the end of it as far as I'm concerned," Ferguson said. "The governor knows how we feel. He's a big boy. If he wants to let it through, that's fine."
A former Orange County supervisor, Bruce Nestande, now a vice president at Arnel Development, said he understood that the Assembly Republican leadership would not actively work against the bill now that it had gone to Deukmejian. Other legislative sources said the fight over affirmative-action goals will now shift to several bond measures headed for the 1988 ballots, to which Democrats have said they want to amend similar hiring provisions.
Nestande said the dispute over the contracting bill was patched up over the Legislature's recess. He blamed the falling out on a "lack of communication" about the importance of the bill to the business community.