Slip sliding away

Posted: Jun 04, 2003 12:00 AM

"It was one of those under-the-radar bills that just slipped by," San Jose's Union School District Superintendent Phil Quon said of a measure Gov. Gray Davis signed before last year's election. The bill, SB1419, limited the ability of local school districts to contract out for noninstructional services, like busing or maintenance.

"It just doesn't make sense to tell me that I can't look at a cost-saving measure in a non-instructional setting," Quon continued, as he discussed the squeeze of operating next year's schools on this year's budget, despite cost increases.

I asked Davis at a San Francisco Chronicle editorial board meeting Friday if he planned to work to repeal this special interest bill. (Gumby has been making the rounds at editorial boards since ill-advised Republicans began pouring money into the effort to recall him.)

"I'm not prepared to argue that specific bill," His Grayness answered. He then added that since some contractors don't pay workers for health coverage or pension benefits, it's not cheaper if the state has to pick up the slack.

(Yes, but if more-efficient contractors pay benefits and hire union workers, why bar a good deal? And why protect bus drivers' compensation if it means less money for teachers?)

The story of SB1419 reflects the sorry state of California politics today. The state budget is $38 billion in the hole. Schools, cities and counties are getting less money than they need, but when a GOP assemblyman introduced a bill to repeal SB1419, it died in committee.

A 2000 audit found that Los Angeles Unified alone could save $25 million by contracting out all its busing. "The Democrats are complaining that the recall costs $25 million, yet the same majority is unwilling to pass a law that would save (all) school districts 10 times that amount and protect teachers," said Mitch Zak, who represents yellow-bus giant Laidlaw Education Services.

Davis suggested that repealing SB1419 could be a budget bargaining chit to win GOP votes. Ditto workers' compensation reform.

Two problems:

No. 1, even if Davis works to lower workers' comp premiums and to repeal SB1419, Republicans say they won't agree to any budget with tax increases. "I don't know where you get the six votes in our caucus," Peter DeMarco, spokesman for Assembly GOP Leader Dave Cox, said, referring to the votes needed to reach the required two-thirds majority.

At some point, the GOP will have to bend. Then comes Problem No. 2: Because of the recall, Davis needs government employee unions now more than ever. Friday Davis noted, "There is an independent group of firefighters and police officers, teachers, environmentalists" fighting the recall. "I'm vaguely aware of what they do, but they're generally independent."

"Vaguely aware." I love a good laugh.

Davis is faring poorly because voters rightly believe he is beholden to special interests. As a lame duck, however, Davis is in a position to short his benefactors -- except that now they're the only folks fighting to stop the effort to oust him.

If he sticks it to labor, Gumby will lose a chunk of his support. If he doesn't stick it to unions, he won't get a budget.

Davis is damned no matter which choice he makes. But voters are damned only one way -- if Gray Davis sticks to his old ways.