The Magazine

Where Liberals Still Rule

In California, it's leftward ho!

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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In the summer of 2000, to the accolades of eastern newspapers and environmentalists and with Robert Redford standing at his side, Davis signed the bill. One enviro gushed, "With one stroke of the pen, he did more to reduce global-warming emissions than the other 49 governors combined." (Actually the bill set no new standards. Instead it directs the state Air Resources Board to issue regulations in 2005 for 2009 models and gives the legislature authority to modify those regulations. The enviros got rolled; this bill is a major shakedown opportunity.)

Back on the left again in September, Davis signed a bill guaranteeing paid family leave for employees. The new program, funded by an employee-paid payroll tax, will pay up to $728 per week for as many as six weeks so that workers can take off time to care for dependents. Readers may recall the bill's author, state senator Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, from her TV stint playing the lovelorn Zelda opposite Dobie Gillis. Jubilant supporters crowed that the measure would spur passage of similar legislation in 27 states.

Davis closed the session with a signature and a veto. Once again, he had been mum as a controversial bill passed both houses. It established mandatory state mediation in stalled farmworker disputes. There was reason to believe Davis would veto it--he had raised $1.5 million from agri-business. On the other hand, he needed the support of Latino groups and the United Farm Workers. At the same time, the legislature had passed a bill allowing illegal aliens to obtain California driver's licenses. Davis already had signed into law a measure that allowed illegal immigrants to pay subsidized in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. But he had vetoed other driver's license bills, while promising to sign one that addressed his concerns about illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds. In the end, Davis split the difference. He signed the farmworker bill and vetoed the driver's license measure.

Many Latinos were furious--they didn't want to settle for only half a loaf. But the hard-bitten and usually profane president pro tem of the Senate, John Burton, was positively teary-eyed at the unexpected signature on the farm bill. You can see why he once told the Chronicle, "The only way that you can really find out what it is that you can get into law is to send the bill down to the chief executive, whoever it is."

That spirit works. In 2000, the same legislature passed and Davis signed two reparations measures. One created a panel to set a dollar amount on the economic costs of slavery--even though California was never a slave state. This year, Sacramento enacted a law allowing stem cell research and cloning in California--not that they were illegal, but just to grab a headline; the bill also required fertility clinics to inform parents how they could donate their unused embryos to science. And Davis signed a bill allowing nonphysicians to perform nonsurgical abortions, as well as one Zelda sponsored requiring all California obstetrics-gynecology residency programs to provide some abortion training, moral objections notwithstanding. So much for choice.

At least Davis has vetoed or failed to sign some of the far-out measures passed by the Assembly and Senate. This year he refused to sign a bill that would have added a $10 fee to TV and computer purchases to pay for recycling. Lawmakers also passed a bill to reduce the penalties for civil disobedience--except for antiabortion protesters; another to set up a hotline for anonymous tips about corporate misdeeds; and another to allow pharmacies to sell syringes without a prescription. None of these became law.

In recent months, as the $100 billion state budget faced a $24 billion shortfall, Assembly speaker Herb Wesson proposed raising the state cigarette tax from 87 cents to $3. Assembly Republicans fought the measure hard, and Davis's political guru Garry South was so disgusted with Sacramento Democrats during budget negotiations that he told the New York Times, "Everybody wants everything now. They try to ram things down the governor's throat without any analysis or thoughtful consideration of the impact it has on the governor or the image it gives of the State of California and the governance of our state."

Senate Republican Caucus communications director H.D. Palmer complains that, even as state revenues shrink, Democrats in the legislature are indifferent to the need for job creation. There's little doubt that they will soon propose steep taxes on "the rich," higher tobacco taxes, and even more imaginative recycling fees. And it's only a matter of time until a Democrat writes a bill requiring employers to contribute to the state family-leave program.