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Recall Seen as Wild Card for New Bills

Lawmakers face a docket full of controversial issues. Democrats may rush to get Davis' signature on some measures.

August 18, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — When vacationing legislators return today for the windup of the 2003 legislative session, they will find themselves confronting a mountain of politically volatile issues caught in the shadow of the Gov. Gray Davis recall election.

At this point, lawmakers said, it is too soon to predict how the recall will affect the Legislature's consideration of such controversial issues as expanding gay rights, safeguarding personal privacy, repealing the unpopular car tax increase and allowing illegal immigrants to get a driver's license.

But Democrats and Republicans agree that the election is bound to add a wild card to the final month before the Legislature adjourns Sept. 12.

Included in the uncertainty is whether the voter dissatisfaction with Davis reflected in public opinion polls will spill into legislative election races next year, particularly Democratic contests.

"I think everyone recognizes that these are difficult times. There is a recognition of the mood of the electorate and the mood of the times," said Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Steinberg, a three-term Democrat, predicted in an interview last week that lawmakers would emerge unhurt from potentially rippling effects of the recall if they focus tightly on resolving a handful of top-priority issues, such as overhauling the workers' compensation insurance system, boosting the availability of affordable housing, approving a universal health-care program for uninsured workers and attempting to prevent a recurrence of this year's $38-billion state budget shortfall.

"I think if we do our jobs right and accomplish some of these big priorities, we will be fine," he said.

But Steinberg and other lawmakers in both parties noted that because the Democrat Davis might be turned out of office Oct. 7, majority Democrats probably will rush to get his signature on bills that a new governor might veto or that could have waited for passage next year.

The two leaders of the minority Republicans, Sen. Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga and Assemblyman Dave Cox of Fair Oaks, said they are braced for approval of a wave of liberal agenda legislation backed by labor unions and trial lawyers that they say would injure businesses and kill jobs.

"The liberal special interests have figured out that Gray Davis is not going to be governor 60 days from now," Brulte said.

"I don't believe there is any recognition of voter anger by our colleagues on the other side of the aisle," Cox said. "Some will be concerned about the impacts of the recall, but others may well come to the conclusion that they need to get what they can quickly. In some situations, they think they have the governor over the proverbial barrel."

Republicans are heavily outnumbered in the Legislature, so it is unlikely that they could block the bulk of Democratic programs they don't like. However, Davis has recently appointed a long list of nominees to state posts, some of them requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate -- and therefore at least two Republican votes -- for confirmation.

Typically, the Legislature has delayed tackling until the final weeks a smorgasbord of controversial issues that puts many reelection-conscious members on the spot. Among those still awaiting resolution:

* Vehicle license fee. Assembly Democrats are considering a plan to repeal the newly tripled vehicle license fee, which produces about $4 billion a year for local government, and to replace it with higher income taxes on the rich and new taxes on cigarettes. But they cannot pass tax increases without a two-thirds vote, and Republicans have shown no sign of supporting the proposal. Among other options, Democrats are looking at labeling the change an increase in fees, rather than in taxes, so they could approve the proposal by a simple majority.

* Domestic partners. An Assembly-passed bill pending in the Senate would extend to domestic partners most of the legal rights and responsibilities that have long applied to heterosexual married couples. Assembly Bill 205, by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), would subject domestic partners to laws affecting divorce and child custody and would enable them to file joint income tax returns. Davis said Saturday that he would sign the bill. Opponents said the change would violate voter-passed Proposition 22, which states that the only valid marriage in California is between a man and a woman.

* Drivers. Pending in the Assembly is a Senate-approved bill by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) that would enable an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants in California to apply for driver's licenses. Davis recently reversed his long-standing opposition to the plan and said he would sign it.

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