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The End Game

Recall Opens a Liberal Bonanza

October 05, 2003|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior scholar in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC and a political analyst for KNBC.

Liberal Democratic legislators were giddy when Lt. Gov. Gray Davis trounced Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren in 1998. For the first time in 16 years, a Democrat occupied the governor's office. But their joy didn't last long. The ever cautious Davis stayed in the center lane. Then the attempt to recall him qualified for the ballot.

There is always an end-of-session flood of bills, and controversial, difficult legislation is often dealt with then. But this year was markedly different. Alluding to the effect of a possible recall on the final weeks of the legislative session, state Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland) told a reporter, "We woke up one morning to find we didn't have four years -- we had four months." The legislative response to that epiphany has been unmistakable.

With the media and voters focused on the political melodrama of the recall, Sacramento's liberals moved one Democratic bill after another onto the governor's desk, some by using the "gut and amend" method of last-minute lawmaking -- stripping a bill of its original contents and substituting new, totally unrelated language. Because of Davis' need to placate Democratic constituencies to survive the recall, Democratic legislators could leverage that need to get as many bills as they could signed into law just in case a Republican reclaimed the governor's office.

As a result, California government has become a liberal bastion, a development with profound implications for the future of governance.

Davis' recent signing of domestic partners legislation, which grants same-sex couples expanded rights, positions California as perhaps the second-most-liberal state, after Vermont, on the issue of gay rights.

Consumer advocates and environmental groups, staunch Democratic supporters, got what they long wanted. After generally supporting banks and other financial institutions on privacy legislation, Davis signed a bill that, Consumers Union says, "provides Californians the strongest financial privacy rights in the country."

Meanwhile, the Wildlife Conservation Board, composed of Davis appointees, hurriedly called a special meeting to allocate funds to buy Ahmanson Ranch in Ventura County and the last available piece of the Ballona Wetlands in coastal Los Angeles County, despite criticisms that the administration was paying too much in order to complete the deal before Tuesday's recall vote.

State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) and Latino political leaders, after failing twice to get Davis' signature on bills granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, finally won the governor's approval of a bill that had fewer security provisions than those he vetoed.

Workers' compensation reform has long been a contentious issue in Sacramento, with businesses demanding relief from high insurance premiums. Davis signed a bill that aimed to roll back some of the ballooning costs to employers and government. But business interests complained that the legislation didn't go far enough. A tougher bill couldn't have withstood the flak from liberals and trial lawyers.

And a health-care bill that has been called "perhaps the most fundamental revamping of health coverage in California since World War II" was on Davis' desk. The groundbreaking law, written by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), would require many businesses to offer health insurance to their employees or contribute to a state insurance fund if they didn't. It was championed by organized labor, the heart of Davis' anti-recall campaign, and opposed by businesses and the California Chamber of Commerce, which derided the plan as "a multibillion-dollar tax on employers."

These examples -- and there are others -- underscore the reality that, should the recall pass, the new governor will not have a hand in policies that significantly changed the direction of California government. If that governor is a Republican, he'll probably be hard put to get much of his agenda through the Democratic-controlled Legislature, let alone trying to reverse the liberal laws signed by Davis. Already, Assemblyman John Dutra (D-Fremont), a moderate Democrat, has said, "Obviously, the Legislature is not going to be dictated to by Mr. Schwarzenegger."

So what's a Republican governor to do with a slew of liberal laws on the books and a Legislature unlikely to give him much slack? Don't be surprised if he used another instrument of progressive government to circumvent the Legislature to accomplish his policy goals: the initiative. Arnold Schwarzenegger said as much last week when he outlined his first 100 days in office. He said, "I will give the legislators one last chance to repeal SB 60 [driver's licenses for illegal immigrants] and if they don't, I will take it directly to the people."

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