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Davis Takes Tough Questions in Burbank Town Hall Event

September 26, 2003|Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Gray Davis fielded pointed questions on California's business climate Thursday as he met voters in the ninth, and seemingly toughest, of the town hall-style meetings that have become a hallmark of his campaign to defeat the Oct. 7 recall.

Questioners at the session in Burbank quizzed Davis about the state's workers' compensation program and a pending bill that would require many California businesses to provide health insurance to their workers or pay into a state fund.

Davis promised a decision in the next week on whether he would sign Senate Bill 2.

Pressed by a business owner about the bill's potential costs to small businesses, Davis pledged to give the man an opportunity to make his case on the bill before he reached a decision. But, he said, "I'm not guaranteeing you'll like the answer."

"I have to look at the economics to see if it works, if the trade-offs are there" in the bill, Davis said. "But I think we misunderstand the benefits to all of us of insuring more people. There's less reliance on emergency room physicians, which are extraordinarily expensive. So everybody has the potential of benefiting if more people have health insurance."

On workers' compensation, Davis said he would sign legislation passed earlier this month that would change the state's system. And he pledged to call the Legislature into a special session to address the issue if the changes do not result in a reduction of premiums for small businesses.

The governor again defended his decision to sign Senate Bill 60, which will allow some illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, rejecting a question about whether his signature was a "politically motivated flip-flop."

"I'm a realist," Davis said, telling his audience that 70% to 80% of the people who work in the state's agricultural fields are here illegally, and many of them are driving already. Giving licenses and testing drivers would result in safer highways, he said.

Davis also continued to decline to offer support to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's campaign in the recall. Many other Democratic leaders have backed Bustamante as their best choice if Davis loses the recall election.

But, said the governor, "after you vote 'no' on the recall, I don't care who you vote for on Question 2."

At times contrite and other times combative, Davis acknowledged his mistakes as governor, including responding too slowly to the electricity crisis in 2000 and 2001.

One of the most pointed moments came when an African American questioner accused him of cutting education in favor of overtime pay for prison guards.

"You severely cut monies to young people but you paid millions of dollars in overtime fees to prison guards," the questioner said. "Your failure to stabilize funding for education will lead to kids going to prison."

Davis stood his ground, firing back: "I respect your right to ask that question, but you're about 100% wrong."

Davis said he had spent $13 billion more on education as governor than the law required over the last five years and had spent only $5 billion on prisons in his most recent budget.

One questioner asked about his proposal to eliminate CalWorks child-care subsidies earlier this year -- a proposal that was rejected by the Democratic majority in the Legislature.

"Sometimes when you prepare a budget, you have to make tough choices and negotiate," said Davis.

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