Calif. Dems: Let Good Times Roll

Like a morgue for legislation, a climate-controlled vault down the street from the Capitol contains hundreds of bills vetoed over the years by two Republican governors.

The bills include legislation banning certain guns and increasing protections for consumers, laborers and the environment. But they died on the desks of Gov. Pete Wilson and his predecessor, George Deukmejian.

Now, with Democrat Gray Davis about to take office as governor in January, interest groups whose proposals have been bottled up for 16 years by GOP vetoes are drafting wish lists and hoping to see their legislation wind up on the books.

"It's kind of like they've taken the padlock off the Capitol and instead of simply banging at the gates, we are now at the table passing papers," said Jamie Court, one of Wilson's fiercest critics as advocacy director for the liberal Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

Wilson vetoed nearly 1,900 bills during eight years in office.

Some he said would be a burden on businesses, others would raise taxes, or infringe on constitutional rights, or result in endless litigation. Some simply failed to make the improvements sought, he said.

If the Democratic-controlled Legislature passes some of these measures and they are signed by Davis, California could immediately position itself as a national leader on several new fronts, just as its air quality laws have been the model for other states.

Davis is known as exceptionally cautious and has repeatedly promised moderate leadership. He has said he would sign several pieces of previously vetoed legislation, including measures dealing with air pollution and gun control.

One of those bills would make California's assault weapons ban the most restrictive in the nation, said Luis Tolley, Western director for Handgun Control Inc. Another would outlaw cheap guns that don't pass safety tests, shutting down the California manufacturers who produce 80 percent of the country's so-called junk guns.

Others would bolster tough smog-fighting laws, help businesses and local governments replace polluting diesel truck engines with new low-emission engines, and broaden patients' rights in suing HMOs.

Wilson has no apologies, whether his vetoes dealt with pollution or health care.

"We already have the toughest clean air standards and water standards, and the most comprehensive medical coverage of practically any state in the union," said Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh.

"We're a very forward-looking, progressive state, but there are extremists for whom too much is never enough. You get to a point where you have to decide, where do we strike a balance between economic dvelopment and the broad-based needs of special interest groups."

The Legislature elected with Davis earlier this month will have the same Democratic leaders as last year, but they will command even bigger majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly.

Wilson vetoed a litany of HMO-related bills, including legislation that would have required HMOs to cover mental illness, contraceptives and vaccines for children, and required doctors, not corporate cost-cutters, to decide how to treat patients.

"We house, as a state, the largest HMOs in the nation," Court said. "The policies we set here in reforming HMOs will affect most Americans because the companies must play by California rules if they are California companies. We pioneered managed care and mismanaged care, and the brakes we put on here will prove to be a bellwether for the rest of nation."

But even some advocates for change warn against pushing too hard.

"Let's just hope that our eyes aren't bigger than our stomachs," said Jerry Meral, executive director and lobbyist for the environmentalist Planning and Conservation League.

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