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Governor Removes Criticized Director

Edward Heidig's post draws scrutiny as law agency is ordered to be more business-friendly.

May 19, 2004|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In the face of Democratic opposition, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday withdrew a political appointment that was strongly backed by California businesses, marking the governor's first setback in picking top officials for his administration.

The Republican governor removed Edward Heidig as director of the Office of Administrative Law at Heidig's request, Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto said. By acting now, Schwarzenegger avoided a confirmation fight in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Heidig's April 2 appointment to the obscure but powerful agency was being closely watched by both business and consumer groups. The administrative law office wields far-reaching influence over the state's economy because it oversees how broadly worded laws are turned into nuts-and-bolts government regulations.

The appointment drew added scrutiny because Schwarzenegger had ordered the office to make the rule-making process more palatable to business.

Heidig is the first of 84 Schwarzenegger appointees to run aground in the Senate, which to date has approved 28, while 55 are pending. Under California law, political appointees can begin serving immediately, but must be confirmed by the Senate within one year.

Opposition to Heidig's appointment was led by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), a veteran lawmaker and environmental advocate. Sher complained that Heidig regularly defied the Legislature while serving in key positions during the administration of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

As director of the state Department of Conservation and later as chairman of the California Integrated Waste Management Board, Heidig tried to "second-guess" lawmakers when implementing laws dealing with recycling, mine cleanups and conflicts of interest, Sher said.

"There was a lack of enthusiasm -- that would be a charitable way to put it -- for the law and his responsibility to enforce the law," Sher said. Heidig, he said, is "the wrong person" to hold a sensitive spot as head of the administrative law agency.

The governor reappointed Heidig on Tuesday as deputy director at the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, a position that doesn't need Senate confirmation. Heidig didn't respond to requests for comment.

Each year, the administrative law office reviews thousands of regulations written by state bureaucrats to transform often vaguely worded legislation into workable laws. The office doesn't deal with policy, focusing instead on making sure rules are clearly written, minimally burdensome and don't conflict with existing state laws.

The office's 2003 agenda included proposed regulations from more than 200 state departments, boards, bureaus and panels, ranging from the Board of Accountancy to the Youthful Offender Parole Board. The rules cover matters as diverse as drinking water standards and arcane areas of tax policy.

"Every rule in California is filtered through this office, so it is essential that it is run independently and without political pressure," said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica advocacy group.

Heidig's appointment came at a crucial time. In an executive order issued Nov. 17 -- his first day in office -- Schwarzenegger directed the administrative law office to freeze the processing of most new regulations for up to six months. He also ordered the office to review all rules put into effect over the last five years.

The freeze and review were needed to assess "the onerous impact of over-regulation on the daily lives of Californians," the governor wrote, adding that some regulations were "perceived to work against business and inhibit growth and economic prosperity."

The review is over, but Schwarzenegger's decree that the office take a more business-friendly attitude when vetting proposed regulations remains in force, the governor's office said.

The California Chamber of Commerce, which represents business interests in the state, backed both the governor's regulatory review and Heidig's appointment, said Jeanne Cain, senior vice president of the chamber. Heidig, who served as interim head of the administrative law office in 1998 during the last eight months of the Wilson administration, was well placed to carry out the governor's order to streamline the regulatory process, Cain said.

But some environmentalists worried that an administrative law director who was overly friendly to business could delay or water down regulations that corporations find distasteful.

They noted, for example, that the office would review key rules being crafted by the state Department of Health Services regulating the levels of arsenic and perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket fuel, in drinking water. The office also will examine regulations being developed by the California Air Resources Board on vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. Industry groups are lobbying heavily on both issues.

Heidig has run into confirmation problems before. In 1995, he asked Wilson to withdraw his appointment to the waste management board after it became apparent that he could not win confirmation.

Sher and state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, then president pro tem of the Senate, accused Heidig of violating state law by failing to report his contacts with industry groups that were doing business with the board. Heidig denied the charges, blaming the waste board's "confusing" system for tracking contacts with industry representatives.

While not seen as a major political defeat for Schwarzenegger, the withdrawal of Heidig's appointment to the $123,264-a-year job indicates that Democrats haven't given the governor a blank check on political appointments.

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