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California and the West

Legislators Rush to Create Chavez Birthday Holiday


SACRAMENTO — Responding to indications of support from Gov. Gray Davis, California legislators are rushing to make the birthday of United Farm Workers Union icon Cesar Chavez a paid state holiday by the time it arrives this Friday.

A bill by state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) to honor Chavez appeared to be lumbering through the Legislature until recently, when Davis let it be known that he was willing to support another paid holiday for state workers, something recent governors have been reluctant to do.

In response, the Assembly's Governmental Organization Committee held a hastily scheduled meeting Monday to move the bill along, and Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno), who was appointed to the panel by Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa for the occasion just last Friday, cast a deciding vote.

Some Republicans--especially those from the farming communities of the Central Valley, where Chavez, who died in 1993, and the United Farm Workers remain controversial--have decried the Democrats' fast-tracking of the holiday bill and have accused Villaraigosa of heavy-handed stacking of the deck.

When the bill came up for a vote in the Senate in January, all Republicans abstained.

"I've learned to respect people's opinions on this; I am coming to learn what a national figure he is," said Assemblyman Mike Briggs (R-Clovis). "But in my district, there are people who still feel the wounds from that era. Many people in my district do not feel Cesar Chavez should be lifted to the same level as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King."

Nevertheless, the proposed holiday, which would also apply to public schools, community colleges, and the courts, is now expected to easily clear the Assembly on Thursday with bipartisan support, return to the Senate for a quick nod and wind up on Davis' desk by March 31.

Chavez's birthday would become the 14th paid holiday for state workers and the 11th for public school employees. Estimated costs for the holiday vary widely. Most state experts put it at $50 million to $100 million, but Republicans argue it would be as high as $188 million.

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