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Sacramento Legislates 

Capitol awakens after 20-year nap

Wednesday, Sep 15 1999
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Sometime around the middle of last week — the state Legislature’s final (and invariably busiest) week of the year — I realized that I was actually picking up the Times each morning wondering what had happened in Sacramento the day before. I also realized that I hadn’t been following the workings of state government so intently since Jerry Brown’s first term, more than 20 years ago.

Which is a roundabout way of saying it’s been two decades since there’s been a Democratic governor and a Democratic Legislature to write the state laws. (Okay, it’s been 16 and a half years, but Jerry Brown’s second term was essentially neutered at the start by the passage of Proposition 13.) After 1978, though California’s needs grew exponentially, state government didn’t really do anything about them. Howard Jarvis, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson saw to that.

For that matter, it’s been four and a half years since the Democrats controlled a major government anywhere: In 1994, the Democrats lost Congress and most every major statehouse in the land. The only big state they recaptured last year was ours. For better or worse, Sacramento in the Gray Davis era is the sole laboratory for capital-D Democracy in the nation.

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And how — now that the year’s lawmaking is done — did capital-D Democracy fare?

Okay. Not great.

 

Gray Davis took office warning the legislators not to expect very much: He’d focus on education, scuttle any major spending increases — and that, or close to it, would be that.

By the time the legislators adjourned into the Rosh Hashana night last Friday, however, they’d managed to do more than that. Had they really confined themselves to implementing Davis’ "vision" — which consisted in toto of raising standards and increasing accountability for the schools — they could have left in March. Fortunately, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton — probably the most liberal leaders their respective houses have ever had — were determined to go beyond Davis’ agenda. By session’s end, what finally emerged from the Legislature was a genuine expansion of the state’s regulations and mandates on a range of controversial business practices, a smattering of bills that embodied the party’s social liberalism (some of which Davis has already vetoed, some of which he may veto yet), and precious little commitment of public funds for such necessary purposes as increasing teacher pay and building affordable housing. Davis was willing to meet the Legislature halfway on imposing regulations, but he drew the line at actually spending public dollars.

On the regulatory front, the state restored overtime pay to workers who put in more than eight hours a day, and enacted a series of gun controls. A low-cost auto-insurance program was created for Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, where motorists with incomes under 150 percent of the poverty line will qualify for policies that cost about $400 a year.

The major battle of the past month was over HMO reform, a topic the Legislature had to persuade the governor even to consider. For his part, Davis made damn sure that nothing too costly to the HMOs would become law. Davis raised money in six figures from state HMOs during his first half-year as governor, and set up an ad hoc advisory committee on the HMO crisis consisting of HMO, insurance and business representatives, but no one from consumer groups.

By the end of the session, however, Davis was willing to deal with consumers’ demands for stricter regulations. Consumer tribune Harvey Rosenfield and his legislative allies pushed for low-cost auto insurance statewide and ended up with a trial program in two big cities. They also pushed for a consumer’s right to sue HMOs for treatment delayed or denied, which Davis scaled back to a right to sue only after internal appeals are exhausted and only in the event of death or major injury. HMOs were also required to establish an external review of health-plan decisions that deny or delay certain treatments — which many HMOs have already established; it’s a cost saver in the long run. The Legislature also passed a bill requiring the HMOs to cover severe mental illnesses. Last year, Pete Wilson vetoed a similar bill as too costly to HMOs and employers; Davis has not said what he’ll do with this year’s version. (He has until October 10 to sign or veto legislation.)

But when it came to spending public money on health care — a priority for many Democratic legislators — Davis just said No. Home to millions of immigrants and poverty-wage workers, California has the nation’s highest rate of uninsured residents, 7 million in all. Villaraigosa had proposals in the state budget to enable more of the working poor to qualify for federal and state coverage, but Davis wouldn’t go for it.

And though Davis has shown some limited willingness to ask voters to increase the state’s bonded indebtedness to meet its needs (he approved park and water bond measures for the March ballot), he has shown no willingness whatever to go to state taxpayers —even to ask them to improve the schools. The standards for achievement and accountability that he had the Legislature enact this year are prerequisites for restoring public confidence in the schools. But what then? The public understands that the shortage of skilled teachers and the low level of teacher pay are major problems, and polling shows it’s willing to pay higher taxes to remedy them. But Davis hasn’t revealed the slightest inclination to persuade Californians to make this commitment.

"If Davis has made one thing clear," one Sacramento insider commented this week, "it’s that he doesn’t want to commit public funds for the long term, that he’s convinced the current prosperity won’t last." But if the state can’t afford to invest in better schools and roads and housing now — with unemployment at its lowest point in a decade and public coffers overflowing — when can it make the necessary investments? The question Davis should ponder during this High Holy Day season is Hillel’s Third: If not now, when?

And Davis would happily ponder it, I’m sure, if the Hillel lobby would just write him a six-figure check.

 

One of the signal regulatory victories of the year came in the area-code overlay battle, which was waged chiefly and brilliantly by West L.A. Assemblyman Wally Knox and L.A. Times columnist Robert Scheer. The area-code cancer began creeping over L.A. during the past several years, as every area code was split and split again. Then, this year, residents in the Westside’s 310 area were told that new numbers in their zone would be given a new area code and that they had to dial 11 digits even for local calls.

But the phone companies didn’t understand the Westside — home to more righteous indignation and aggregate chutzpah than any five other neighborhoods combined. Moreover, Knox had ferreted out the phone companies’ dirty little secret: They were allotted new numbers in blocks of 10,000, and they were quite content not to assign them, but simply to sit on them so that other companies couldn’t have access to them. With so many companies in the field, new numbers quickly "ran out" and new area codes were created. In short, the area-code crisis is another unintended consequence of deregulation — making markets more efficient while driving consumers crazy.

The rule of 10,000 was set by the Federal Communications Commission in 1947, when just about the only petitioner for numbers was Old Ma Bell. Like any prudent mother, Ma Bell made sure that all her numbers were handed out, then handed out some more. Today, however, there are a couple of hundred phone companies careening across California, but they still get their numbers in 10-K blocks, even if they assign just a fraction of them. "No rational businessperson would have an inventory of a million used widgets," says Knox. "But if you get those widgets for free, and if you can’t sell them to anybody else, and if your competitor wants them, then sure — you sit on them."

Knox’s bill forces companies to demonstrate to the state Public Utilities Commission the need for a new area code, and orders companies to use up one 10,000-number block before moving on to the next. But confronted with a lobbying blitz from the phone companies, Knox could only get enough votes for passage by excising the section that mandated a stop to the overlay and the 11-digit dialing in the 310 area. Instead, it’s up to the PUC, which may vote on this issue as early as this Thursday, to save the Westside from the consumer hell of the maximally efficient market.

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