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California and the West

It's Crunch Time as Davis Signs, Vetoes Bills

Capitol: Governor weighs about 700 pieces of legislation as deadline nears. Friends and foes of the measures keep donations flowing.


SACRAMENTO — All the months of negotiating, cajoling, plotting and power lunching lead to this final critical week in the state capital, when California's governor is at the peak of his considerable power to make or break legislation.

Most legislators, now bit players, have left town. Many lobbyists have stayed, trading their suits for jeans and open-neck shirts. But this is a tense time for them; they are all looking for an edge.

Perhaps they can find one more supporter who has Gov. Gray Davis' ear, to make one last point. Always, they're careful not to offend Davis, lest he veto bills they want signed, or sign bills they want killed. Many lobbyists recommend that their clients donate to the governor.

Bill-signing season is a prime fund-raising time. A donation doesn't ensure a favorable decision. Davis often takes actions that run counter to his benefactors' interests. Still, donors open their wallets this time of year.

In fact, Davis, who raised money at a clip of more than $1 million a month in his first 18 months in office, will hold a fund-raiser in Sacramento on Wednesday. The likely take: at least $200,000, said a source involved in the event.

By law, Davis has a month to sign or veto bills after the Legislature adjourns. This year's deadline is Saturday. About 700 pieces of legislation await a decision, including many on the legislative session's weightiest issues.

There are bills to expand gambling in California, benefit Napa Valley winemakers and overhaul the insurance commissioner's office in the wake of the Chuck Quackenbush scandal. There are bills to boost benefits for injured and unemployed workers, tax Internet sales and block a dump from opening at the base of a mountain that is sacred to San Diego-area Indians and situated near current and future tribal casinos.

To meet the Sept. 30 deadline, Davis must decide about 100 bills a day, turning the final step of the process into triage, Capitol-style. His aides have divided bills among themselves, read the files, written summaries. On any bill that received five or more "no" votes in the Legislature, the Department of Finance has drafted a veto message, which Davis can take or leave.

Like all governors, Davis has used his veto power to establish his authority. Lawmakers assume their bills will fall if they have been too sharp in their criticism of him. At a bash last year hosted by the Legislature, Davis joked about the power of his veto pen. As he spoke, the word "VETO" flashed in lights behind him.

"In the quest to establish authority, he stepped on a lot of people unnecessarily with dismissive vetoes," a veteran Democratic lawmaker said, requesting anonymity for fear that Davis might take offense. "The alternative is to give the benefit of the doubt to the legislator and sign their bills."

People who know Davis say there are certain things to consider in pushing legislation: He doesn't like spending tax money, particularly on other people's ideas, so bills with a price tag are most suspect. A centrist, Davis also dislikes one-sided bills, preferring that all groups in a legislative fight walk away with less than they sought.

But exactly how Davis makes his decisions is unknown. For all its late-night deals, the legislative process largely is carried out in public. Lobbyists' arguments are made in the open, before committees. Legislators' votes are recorded for all to see.

But the final step takes place behind the closed doors of Davis' corner office. Letters sent to the governor on legislative matters are not public record under state law. Nor are the identities of those with whom he confers.

"It becomes a completely nonpublic process," said Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa). "Even the legislator can be shut out. If you're not doing your job and following it, you become fair game."

Despite having spent 25 years in public life, Davis has few close advisors. On legislation, he turns to Chief of Staff Lynn Schenk, Cabinet Secretary Susan Kennedy, Finance Director Tim Gage and Legislative Affairs Secretary Mike Gotch, a former assemblyman from San Diego. As befits a politician with a 60% approval rating, Davis consults with his top campaign advisors, including his chief campaign advisor, Garry South, on issues that have political implications.

Given his small circle, lobbyists with ties to Davis are in demand.

Several lawmakers and lobbyists assume that Darius Anderson, Davis' campaign finance chairman, can gain the governor's ear. Anderson established a lobbying firm last year. His Platinum Advisors now is one of the capital's top firms, with $2.25 million in billings reported in the first year and a half of Davis' tenure, and a blue chip client list of BP-Amoco, Walt Disney, Fireman's Fund, Andersen Consulting, the California Commerce Club card room and many others.

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