SACRAMENTO — In a setback to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Superior Court judge has issued a tentative ruling requiring hospitals to provide staffing ratios sought by nurses.
The seemingly bureaucratic dispute between the Schwarzenegger administration and the state's largest nurses union has evolved into an ongoing public spectacle, with angry nurses dogging the governor at many of his appearances.
In her tentative ruling Thursday, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Judy Holzer Hersher shot down an emergency order issued by the administration that sought to delay implementation of new nurse-topatient ratios.
The administration said the mandate would exacerbate an already critical shortage of nurses in California.
The requirement limits nursing coverage to no more than five patients at a time. Holzer Hersher said she could not find any legal authority for the governor to issue a delay.
The state Department of Health Services "abused its discretion and failed to follow the procedures established by law in determining that the regulations were necessary for the immediate preservation of public health and safety," Holzer Hersher wrote.
Officials at the state's Health and Human Services Agency said they would appeal the ruling, assuming the judge did not change her opinion.
"We are not surprised by [the] ruling," said agency spokeswoman Nicole Kasabian Evans. "This is just another step in the process."
Leaders of the 60,000-member California Nurses Assn. said Schwarzenegger overstepped his authority in issuing the order in November.
"The governor misused his authority in issuing an emergency order to fight the nurses and the patients," said Rose Ann DeMoro, the group's executive director. "The problem is, frankly, the governor's got an unlimited war chest."
The bitter battle between the union and the governor stems from the nation's only mandatory staffing level for hospitals.
The law, passed by the Legislature in 1999 and signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis, required one nurse for every six patients by Jan. 1, 2004, and one nurse for every five patients by Jan. 1, 2005.
Schwarzenegger issued the emergency order so the law could be studied further, seeking to delay the 1-to-5 ratio until 2008.
He has said that he agrees with the hospital industry that a statewide nursing shortage would only get worse if the mandate is allowed to stand.
That order sparked a vigorous opposition campaign from the nurses that included pickets, television commercials and aerial advertising at some of his events.
Some political workers mark the beginning of the governor's falling popularity with his fight with the nurses and comments that he made at a December forum. At the time, he said the nurses union was a special interest and that he was "kicking their butts."