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Issues Addressed in Bitter Year

As lawmakers end a demoralizing year, Democrats hustle through legislation that Republicans do their best to obstruct. Some bills may have far-reaching effects.

September 14, 2003|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — As they cast their final votes and left town for home on Saturday, many California lawmakers had but one good thing to say about the legislative season just concluded:

It's over.

"We can only hope," declared Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland), "that there will never, ever be a year like this one again."

"Yuck," added Sen. John Vasconcellos, a Democrat from Santa Clara and California's longest-serving lawmaker. "That's your headline -- yuck."

It is easy to see what spawned such sentiments. The year began, after all, with a budget gap of almost unfathomable proportions -- swelling by spring to $38 billion -- and wound down with a bitter gubernatorial recall campaign that, one way or another, overshadowed all things under the Capitol dome.

Fearful of losing the governorship to the GOP, Democrats spent the closing days of the legislative year hustling through complex bills that might otherwise have been shelved until 2004. Republicans decried the eleventh hour maneuvering as reflecting an "arrogance of power" on the part of the dominant party and did their best to be obstructionist where they could.

Despite the sharp partisanship and political chaos, however, the 2003 Legislature managed to defy the odds and approve far-reaching bills on some of the most pressing issues of the day.

Topping the list was a package of measures to stabilize the state's dysfunctional workers' compensation insurance system. While Republicans attacked the reforms as meaningless tinkering, the bills are a first stab at addressing the skyrocketing premiums that plague California businesses.

Also approved was a fiercely debated bill that, beginning in 2006, will require some employers to provide workers with health insurance and a measure, signed by Gov. Gray Davis, giving California the nation's most ambitious financial privacy law. Under the law, consumers can block the sale of their personal financial information by banks, credit card companies and other businesses.

Other significant bills churned out this year give domestic partners many of the benefits enjoyed by married couples; allow illegal immigrants to obtain California driver's licenses; and establish a first-in-the-nation recycling system for computers, televisions and other toxic electronics waste.

"You could say it was the best of times and the worst of times for the Legislature," argued Barbara O'Connor, director of the Center for the Study of Media and Politics at Cal State Sacramento. "They tackled some big things, protected education from major cuts, and got some good bills out. But the partisanship, the increase in special-interest dominance, the lack of basic civility ... all of that was just awful."

Five years ago, lawmakers arrived in Sacramento and were blessed with a bonanza of riches -- a $13-billion surplus allowing them to invest in schools, expand health care for the poor, rebuild deteriorating freeways and cut taxes.


Deep Fiscal Crisis

January 2003 could not have been more different. Saddled with a revenue shortfall made worse by the politically expedient budget they had adopted while campaigning for reelection the previous year, lawmakers -- including rookies ushered in by term limits -- immediately confronted a fiscal crisis so deep that it made headlines across the nation.

Right out of the starting gate, the Senate's veteran leader, John L. Burton (D-San Francisco), summed up the theme for the year this way: "The budget, the budget, the budget," he said.

That prophecy came true, as the struggle over how to mend the gaping hole in California's wallet dominated Capitol life. With Republicans adamantly opposed to tax increases and Democrats striving to prevent large rips in the state's safety net, a budget standoff was unavoidable.

Such stalemates are de rigueur in Sacramento, especially in periods of scarcity. Fifteen times in the last 17 years, the Legislature has missed its constitutional deadline for adopting a budget.

But the impasse of 2003 was a legitimate crisis -- the partisanship more potent, the stakes much higher. Upping the ante, Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga warned GOP lawmakers that he would fight to end their political careers if they broke ranks and voted for tax increases; he even unveiled a sample advertisement he threatened to use against those who defied him.

The first-ever recall campaign against a California governor to reach the ballot only aggravated the tensions, encouraging Republicans to dig in and increasing the anxiety of Democrats.

"We were divided into warring camps," said Vasconcellos, elected in 1966 and serving his final term. "In time of crisis, people should pull together with a sense of common purpose and responsibility. Instead, we had the most contentious, divisive year I can remember."

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