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A Legislative Year That Fit Labor's Bill

October 06, 2002|GREGG JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A simple epitaph sums up the 2002 bill-signing season: Labor won big.

That's the conclusion of legislators, lobbyists and other experts after watching Gov. Gray Davis decide the fate of more than 1,100 bills in September.

Davis turned labor's legislative triumphs into state law by signing most of the union measures that reached his desk, from comprehensive paid family leave for most Californians to pay raises for prison guards. He made national headlines with the family leave bill, and by granting a form of binding arbitration to unionized farm workers.

"Labor absolutely was a big winner," said Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at UCLA.

In sheer political terms, Davis, who is running for reelection Nov. 5, shored up his base with the labor measures and legislation favored by environmental groups, gun-control activists, abortion-rights advocates and trial lawyers. He also set new curbs on auto emissions blamed for global warming and supported controversial stem cell research, again garnering national attention.

"The governor's campaign has caused him to need his friends more than he's seemed to think he has in the past," said V. John White, a veteran lobbyist for environmental and renewable-energy causes. "On both the global warming bill and farm labor bill, he moved faster than people thought he would move on big issues."

At the same time, demonstrating the political dexterity that has become a defining trait of the self-described centrist governor, Davis didn't exactly shun his Republican detractors.

He signed several anti-crime and homeland security measures applauded by prosecutors, law enforcement agencies and victims' rights advocates. Among them were a bill by state Sen. Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Cruz) that prevents criminals from profiting from their crimes and legislation by state Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) that allows authorities to forcibly extract DNA from prisoners who may have committed other unsolved crimes.

And, after incurring the wrath of the state's $27-billion agriculture industry and other business interests by signing the farm labor and paid-leave legislation, Davis handed business four major victories on the final day of bill signings. Among those was a veto of Senate Bill 1828 by Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), which would have given Native American tribes new powers to protect sacred sites from developers.

"You have winners and losers any time you go through this," said Jeanne Cain, vice president for government relations at the California Chamber of Commerce, the state's biggest business group. "Our losses were big. And our wins were big."

By the reckoning of some members of the Latino caucus, California Latinos were the biggest losers in the annual bill-signing sweepstakes that ended at midnight Monday.

For many Latinos, the goodwill the governor generated by signing the farm worker legislation was lost when he vetoed a pair of bills--AB 60 and SB 804--that would have given driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

Davis killed similar legislation last year and promised to sign the measure this year if law enforcement concerns were satisfied. The legislation was the focal point of long and tortuous negotiations between the governor and Latino legislators this year.

Now, some Latino lawmakers are accusing the governor of bargaining in bad faith and breaking his promise--charges he rejects.

The list of disappointments for Latino legislators doesn't end there. Citing severe budget restraints, Davis vetoed a number of other bills on education, housing and health initiatives aimed at Latinos.

The Latino caucus responded Friday by denying Davis its endorsement for reelection.

Still, Davis has his defenders among Latino legislators.

"Overall, I think he's done a pretty good job for the state of California," said Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar), a member of the Latino caucus. "We've had some pretty big constraints the last couple of years, particularly with the budget deficit and the economy taking a nose-dive."

He faults Davis for vetoing the driver's license bills but praises him for signing the farm labor legislation and supporting other measures important to his constituents. Overall, he gives the governor a grade of B this year.

Davis' critics say it's no coincidence that unions--the single biggest source of campaign cash for the Democratic governor--were the year's biggest winners. Davis signed 16 of the 19 California Labor Federation-backed bills that reached his desk.

Union leaders say their victories were a triumph for working Californians, not a tribute to labor's massive political contributions.

"These are issues that are important to your average family," said Art Pulaski, secretary general of the federation.

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