SACRAMENTO, CA — In his six years in office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has played the predictable Republican role of gatekeeper on legislation he deems to be anti-business, vetoing more than 90 percent of bills that the state’s Chamber of Commerce calls "job killers."
But over the past dozen-plus years, it has been Democratic lawmakers who have become the unlikely allies in ensuring so-called job-killer bills don’t get through the legislative chambers they have controlled.
In a Bay Area News Group analysis of the chamber’s 13-year "job killer" campaign, which identifies regulatory, labor and tax legislation it considers to have a negative impact on the economy, the vast majority of bills labeled "job killer" have either died in committee or on the floor or had provisions removed to satisfy business interests. Aggressive lobbying, term limits and an influx of moderate Democrats more sensitive to business interests made it possible. From 1997 to this year — with the exception of 2000, when the chamber waited until after the session was over to make up its list — 74 percent (335 of 453) of the bills designated as job killers never made it to the governor’s desk.
It is a record that infuriates John Burton, the state Democratic Party chairman and longtime powerhouse liberal San Francisco lawmaker who served in the Legislature and U.S. Congress for 35 years.
"I’ve got no idea why Democrats feel they’ve got to dance to the tune of the chamber," said Burton, who served as the state Senate leader from 1998 to 2004. "The chamber’s job is to protect big business. The job of Democrats is to protect average, everyday people. It doesn’t make sense to be elected by working people and voting with the bosses."
Moderate or business-oriented Democrats have brought a more open mind to business concerns, said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, who worked as a consultant with the chamber early on the job-killer campaign.
"You have somewhat more Democrats in high-income areas, with middle-class people who feel the pressure of potential job losses," said Quinn, a former Republican legislative staff member. "Democrats are no longer a party of just working-class labor union areas. They’ve got people in moderate parts of the state and are sensitive to business interests. That’s why the chamber has been successful in peeling off 10 to 12 Democrats to kill these bills."
The chamber — a group made up of 16,000 member businesses around the state that has been criticized for being the political arm of major corporations — has also reframed much of the Capitol climate by linking the economic viability of companies to jobs in a period where job security has become tantamount to the public, observers said.
And the term-limits era — forged largely by the inexperience of lawmakers — has provided an opening to lobbyists who can make their cases on newcomers unsure of their footing on complex issues, observers said.
"It reflects the chamber’s sway," said Doug Heller, an analyst for Consumer Watchdog, which tracks the relationship between corporate donors and politicians. "The Chamber of Commerce has become quite active in working the Democratic side. So, liberal Democrats can’t get their bills past their own Democrats. There are several committees run by business Democrats that have been able to bottleneck anything that might make it onto the job-killer list."
Allan Zaremberg, the president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce, said that once many Democratic lawmakers realize the "adverse consequences" of their legislation, they often back off their bills.
"A lot of legislation that starts out well-intentioned falls by the wayside when lawmakers hear both sides of the story," Zaremberg said. "If we can just get out the harmful impact a bill has on jobs and the economy, the author might have second thoughts."
It hasn’t hurt to have a Republican in the executive office. Schwarzenegger has vetoed 93 percent of so-called job-killer bills (53 of 57), compared with Gray Davis, who vetoed 29 percent of the so-called job killer bills (12 of 41).
This year, the governor has vetoed all six "job killer" bills approved by the Legislature, while 27 others died in the Legislature.
"The governor’s always felt that what’s best for the chamber is best for business in California," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute and a former speech writer for ex-Gov. Pete Wilson. "He is a raging capitalist. When the chamber talks, he understands the language very clearly."
In the past two years of Wilson’s administration, when the job-killer campaign was just beginning, Wilson vetoed all 20 "job killer" bills approved by the Legislature, while 101 others died in the Legislature.
Encouraged by what he has seen as a shift in lawmakers’ view on legislation dealing with workplace issues, Zaremberg is floating an idea to create a legislative committee that would focus on economic impacts on the private sector.
But the business group is unlikely to win widespread Democratic support for such a change, given that their job-killer analyses steadfastly place business interests over workers’ interests.
"One problem I have with them is I don’t think they represent small business; they represent large companies like Wal-Mart," said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who was a business owner for 30 years and still pays his chamber dues. "Clearly, their prime motivation is about profits. They’re not interested in high-paying jobs. They’re interested in lower-wage jobs in which California companies can make the biggest profits. "
One of DeSaulnier’s bills, Senate Bill 145, was among 33 labeled a job killer this year that died on the Assembly floor after gaining passage in the Senate and the Assembly Insurance Committee. It would have eliminated discrimination based on risk factors when determining how much of a disability should be covered by workers’ compensation. Business opponents said it would open a Pandora’s box of further claims and lawsuits.
As former chairman of the Assembly Labor & Employment committee, Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, has been a regular target on the job-killer list. This year, he had two, including Assembly Bill 842, which would have increased the notice requirement of a mass layoff from 60 to 90 days. Another, Assembly Bill 1421, would have required that workers at airports, amusement parks, sports or entertainment venues be paid for time — often up to a half-hour one way — spent being transported from a remote parking place to their workplace.
"There’s a connection between having productive, happy workers with successful businesses," Swanson said. "And it’s hard to understand why the chamber doesn’t see that."
The same could be said for some of his Democratic colleagues.
A HISTORY OF SUCCESS:
A California Chamber of Commerce-led coalition began listing bills they opposed as so-called "job killers" in 1997. In that time, under three governors, 453 have been identified as job-killer bills, 118 approved by the Legislature, 85 vetoed and 33 signed. Here’s the breakdown by governor:
Pete Wilson, 1997-98: 121 bills identified as job killers, 20 approved by Legislature, 20 vetoed, none signed.
Gray Davis, 1999-2003: 127 bills identified as job killers, 41 approved by Legislature, 12 vetoed, 29 signed.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, 2004-09: 205 bills identified as job killers, 57 approved by Legislature, 53 vetoed, four signed.
‘Job Killers’ VETOED IN 2009
AB943 (Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Norwalk): Would forbid companies from using consumer credit reports in hiring decisions.AB1404 (Assemblyman Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles): Would limit the amount of offsets California industries would use to meet their greenhouse gas emission goals.
AB2 (Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate): Would allow individuals to sue insurance companies if health coverage is rescinded.
AB793 (Assemblyman David Jones, D-Sacramento): Would expand the statute of limitations on employee discrimination complaints.
SB242 (Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco): Would forbid businesses from refusing service to those who don’t speak English.
SB789 (Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento): Would have allowed farmworkers to bypass secret balloting and select a labor representative by submitting cards signed by a majority of employees.
Contact the author, Steven Harmon, at 916-441-2101.