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Davis Whittles at Stack of Bills

Policy: Marathon debate and signing sessions mark his days as he nears Sept. 30 deadline to OK or veto 1,200 measures.


SACRAMENTO — At 6 p.m. last Wednesday, 17 state health and social services officials, budget experts and senior staff of Gov. Gray Davis gathered in a secure Capitol conference room with nothing but bulging ring-binder notebooks--no television cameras, lobbyists or even well-meaning lawmakers to distract them.

For three hours, pausing only to devour slices of pizza, they dissected 55 health-care bills approved by the Legislature and forwarded to the governor's office. It was the fifth such session conducted by Davis' senior staff that day, on legislation affecting everything from education to the environment, all aimed at distilling months of legislative debate and lobbying into a simple recommendation to the governor: Sign or veto.

At this session, participants talked about what each bill was supposed to do, why it was good or bad policy and what it would cost or save Californians.

By the time the closed-door conference broke up, Davis' Deputy Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy was prepared to make recommendations to her boss that would determine the fate of most of the 55 measures.

Davis has until Sept. 30 to act on more than 1,200 bills approved by the California Legislature before it adjourned in the wee hours of Sept. 1. Most are now sitting only a few feet from the governor's office, in a locked inner sanctum known as the "War Room," packed in file boxes marked "Chillin' "--a slangy way of saying the bills have yet to reach the governor's desk.

As Davis approaches the end of his first term, endless speculation shrouds his decisions on legislation and appointments, in part because of the Democratic governor's penchant for secrecy.

Many Republican lawmakers, lobbyists and other critics say the governor is guided by political calculations and campaign contributions. Davis and his supporters, however, say those decisions are the culmination of a rigorous review by staff members and the governor himself.

The Wednesday vetting session attended by a Times reporter--a rare glimpse inside the Davis administration--suggests a freewheeling debate among Davis' trusted aides and executive branch officials as bills make their way from the Legislature to the governor's desk.

"I think he cares about his legacy and doesn't want to be seen as hurting the economy," said Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), noting that Davis has signed dozens of her bills over the last four years, including many that were opposed by powerful interests. "[But] you could not say this governor is serving moneyed interests if you look at the bills he's signed."

At the same time, Davis aides acknowledge the governor factors in who is supporting and opposing any major bill--just as lawmakers listen to lobbyists and campaign contributors when they're weighing legislation.

Davis pays particular attention to the priority lists of powerful interest groups like the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Labor Federation and the Sierra Club, said Press Secretary Steven Maviglio.

"He'll go down and look and see what the different groups said about it in their letters and testimony and read through all that," he said.

One of the more closely watched decisions Davis must make is on a bill that would provide paid family leave to workers--something that is common in other industrialized countries.

The bill, SB 1661, presents Davis with a dilemma: Its author is Kuehl, and its sponsor is the California Labor Federation, which counts it as perhaps the most important of 19 bills it currently has on Davis' desk.

But the California Chamber of Commerce hates the bill and put it high on its annual "job-killer list."

Davis isn't saying what he's going to do, and both sides admit they can only guess as to whether the governor will sign or veto the bill.

The governor's cautious preference for not tipping his hand on a controversial piece of legislation frustrates many lawmakers.

"You rarely hear early on from the governor or governor's staff on any piece of legislation," Kuehl said.

In this case, however, Davis eventually warned Kuehl through staff contacts that he would object to legislation requiring businesses to shoulder the costs of family leave, she said. So Kuehl shifted the costs to employee contributions and scaled back the bill's reach by inserting amendments that cut the length of any leave to six weeks from 12 and imposed other restrictions.

Aware that Davis might make a decision on her legislation in the middle of an all-night session of bill signing, Kuehl said she tries to make sure she has given his staff the answers to every question he might ask.

"I still don't know if it's going to be signed," she said.

As the day of a final decision on major bills nears, lobbyists also try to work every last possible angle.

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