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Special Legislative Sessions Have an Open Agenda

Lawmakers reconvene Tuesday. Many predict a quick repeal of the driver's license bill. Workers' comp and the budget may take longer.

November 16, 2003|Nancy Vogel and Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Shortly after he becomes governor of California around noon on Monday, Arnold Schwarzenegger will order the state's 120 lawmakers back to the Capitol for a series of special sessions. But exactly how those sessions will unfold -- only two days from now -- remains a mystery to leaders of the Legislature.

So far, there are no legislative proposals from the new Republican governor. Schwarzenegger has only promised to ask lawmakers to repeal a law that allows illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, revise the workers' compensation system and realign an out-of-whack state budget.

Many lawmakers predict a quick repeal of the driver's license bill. But nobody expects the Legislature, with Democratic majorities in both houses, to so easily dispense with runaway costs in the workers' compensation system or a $10.2-billion budget shortfall.

Legislative leaders said they don't know whether the Senate and Assembly will hunker down to tackle those issues or largely disband after a quick meeting to set up committees that would hash out proposals. State law says that the governor "may cause" the Legislature to assemble, but once assembled, the Legislature sets its own rules.

"I don't know what's going on in the special sessions," said Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). "It's all hearsay."

If Schwarzenegger doesn't offer up detailed proposals for the Legislature to consider, he said, "then nothing will probably happen."

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) said he hasn't heard yet either what Schwarzenegger will direct the Legislature to tackle.

"At this juncture, the ball is in his court," Wesson said.

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Karen Hanretty said the governor-elect will indeed offer specific proposals when lawmakers reconvene on Tuesday.

In his first meeting with the top four Democratic and Republican leaders of the Legislature last month, Schwarzenegger promised "action, action, action, action."

A special session is designed to get a quick result from its action. Unlike the regular session of the Legislature, which doesn't resume until Jan. 5, a bill passed in a special session can take effect within 90 days after the session adjourns. Legislation approved by a two-thirds super-majority in a special session takes effect immediately. A Bills passed with a simple majority in a regular session do not usually take effect until the following year.

Driver's License Bill

In his campaign to oust Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, Schwarzenegger vowed to repeal a bill, SB 60, that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for driver's licenses. Davis signed SB 60 in September as he struggled to keep his job in the face of a recall campaign. The bill received no Republican votes in its final passage through the Legislature. Critics accused Davis of pandering to Latino voters, and polls showed widespread public distaste for the new law.

Republican groups have already sued to prevent the law from going into effect in January. They have also begun gathering signatures to ask voters to overturn it when they go to the polls in March, in case the Legislature fails to act. Schwarzenegger calls the law too lax to stop fugitives or terrorists from getting driver's licenses.

The bill's author, state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), said he has been "working around the clock" to find consensus on how to address those concerns while still ensuring that the estimated 2 million illegal immigrants living and working in California get driver's education and insurance.

Cedillo said Schwarzenegger and his aides haven't responded to offers of compromise.

"I just don't get a sense that they appreciate -- other than its unpopularity -- the magnitude and the importance of SB 60 to the people of California," Cedillo said.

Democratic lawmakers have yet to meet to discuss their strategy on the driver's license bill.

The Democratic majority has three choices: accede to Schwarzenegger's demands and repeal the legislation without conditions, repeal it only with assurances that Republicans will later support a compromise version, or stand behind the bill and face the strong possibility that voters will kill it at the polls.

Republican lawmakers say they believe enough Democrats will vote to repeal the law, in part because they don't want it to be a campaign issue in March.

"I don't think Democrats want that being on the ballot at the same time someone can vote for or against them," said Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who will become Republican leader of the lower house in January.

Even many Democrats predicted the law would be overturned, at least in the Assembly.

"It could happen, yes, it could," said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles). "I would prefer that we keep face with the people we told could get a license and deal with any problems [Schwarzenegger] has with it," she said. But Goldberg predicted that eight or nine Democrats in the Assembly are probably ready to join Republicans and rescind the bill.

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