California Legislature Works on Davis-Friendly Bills

California's Legislature returns from its summer recess Monday amid recall-election tumult, and the mix could change legislation ranging from taxes to who gets a driver's license.

Republicans expect the Democratic majority, worried that the Oct. 7 recall might result in the ouster of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis (search) and the election of a Republican successor, will use the four weeks remaining in the legislative session to push through bills designed to keep the governor in office.

"We would expect to see a lot of shenanigans on the floor in the last 30 days," said Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox (search).

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (search), a Democrat, said he will work to keep lawmakers focused on the key issues already scheduled for votes instead of the "recall circus."

But the recall has managed to work its way into the debate surrounding some of the more contentious legislation, including bills to expand health insurance coverage and cut workers' compensation costs for employers.

"I expect a placebo workers' comp bill to pass, a reform that allows Democrats to say we have solved the problem, but doesn't really do anything or gets very little savings to business," said Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte.

State Sen. Richard Alarcon, a Democrat, said he believes lawmakers can cut workers' compensation costs by as much as $5 billion — if they make it a goal.

"I think Senator Brulte is more focused on promoting an agenda that works relative to the recall effort," said Alarcon.

Democrats also hope to replace an unpopular car tax (search) increase with what they hope are more palatable taxes. The $99 billion state budget approved by lawmakers triples the vehicle license fee to help ease a record $38.2 billion deficit.

Under legislation being drafted by Democratic Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, the $4 billion-a-year vehicle fee increase would be replaced with higher taxes on tobacco and the wealthy. The switch was proposed by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is running in the recall in hopes of keeping the governor's office in Democratic hands if Davis is ousted.

It takes a two-thirds majority to raise taxes in the Legislature, but Democrats say their proposal would need only a simple majority because it is only swapping taxes, not increasing them. Republicans say the swap could end up in court.

Also among the roughly 1,000 pieces of legislation is a bill that would enable illegal immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses. Critics see security risks, but supporters say measure would make the roads safer by increasing the chances those drivers would have training and insurance.

Last October, Davis vetoed a version of the bill in the middle of a tight re-election campaign, a decision that cost him the endorsement of the 24-member caucus of Hispanic Democratic lawmakers. Hispanics make up more than a third of California's population and 14 percent of the electorate — twice their voting strength of a decade ago.

This month Davis said he would sign the revised bill if it reaches his desk, drawing accusations that he is pandering to Hispanics to try to save his job. Aides to the governor denied he is playing politics and said the new version addresses the security concerns he had with the version he vetoed.

The current bill, like the previous version, does not require immigrants to pass criminal background checks, but does require applicants to be photographed and fingerprinted and their physical descriptions and addresses recorded.

Davis, who has seen his approval ratings plummet in recent months, is the first California governor to face a recall election.

Voter anger has been building since the state's 2000-2001 energy crisis. Since then, Californians have witnessed the decline of the state's technology sector and a record $38 billion budget deficit, which triggered the vehicle tax increase, forced college fees to rise as much as 30 percent and has threatened state employees with layoffs and pay cuts.