Dan Walters

Democrats leveraged budget, too

Gov. Schwarzenegger, Democratic legislators and the media roasted Republican senators for holding up passage of the state budget on issues that had nothing to do with the budget, such as their demands to restrict lawsuits over greenhouse gas emissions.

“A whole lot of stuff was brought up at the end that was never brought up before,” Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata complained at one point.

It’s a valid point, even though Republicans countered that they had to use the budget on other issues because the Democrats otherwise ignored them. But Republicans weren’t the only ones leveraging the budget on extraneous matters; Democrats loaded up the so-called “budget trailer bills” with, as Perata might describe it, “a whole lot of stuff.”

The 15 trailer bills whipped through the Assembly with the budget bill July 20. But the month-long stalemate in the Senate gave those affected an opportunity to crank up lobbying efforts. In the final, hectic moments of the budget drama this week, some significant changes were made in the form of trailer bills to the trailer bills.

One last-minute change, demanded by Republicans, repealed a provision in one Assembly-passed trailer bill that, in effect, denied pollution reduction funds to railroads. The ban had been placed in the trailer bill by allies of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has been feuding with the state Air Resources Board over locomotive emission controls.

The ARB and the railroads reached a master agreement on reducing emissions two years ago. The regional air board has been trying to undo it ever since, alleging that it’s too lax. The ban on railroads receiving funds was aimed at pressuring them into negotiating a new pact.

Another major change repealed a trailer bill’s language aimed at helping medical care providers and their lawyers garner larger monetary settlements from insurance companies in some personal injury cases. Insurers and their “tort reform” allies mounted a campaign to undo the language and succeeded. Still another change, made at Republican insistence, removes a trailer bill provision that required the state to follow an outside organization’s “green” standards in state office buildings and was opposed by the lumber industry.

Perhaps the oddest trailer bill saga, however, involves Senate Bill 92, drafted in Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez’s office and approved by the Assembly on July 20.

One portion appropriated $18 million to help charter schools in poor neighborhoods pay rent on facilities, a sharp cut from the $44 million that Schwarzenegger sought in his budget. Another essentially prohibited the State Board of Education from granting any more statewide school charters.

Nunez’s aides said it was designed to curb the board’s leniency on granting statewide charters, but it may have been a knee-capping assault on Los Angeles’ Green Dot charter school system, which serves poor neighborhoods but has gained the enmity of school unions and has applied for a statewide charter.

Whatever the bill’s true purpose, it was clearly aimed at forcing Schwarzenegger, a charter school backer, to either accept the statewide ban or have charter schools serving poor children lose vital aid. But when the governor quickly made it known that he would, in fact, veto the bill, the speaker backed down and had SB 92 held at the Assembly desk.

The inaction, however, still leaves the charter schools, many of which are in Nunez’s hometown of Los Angeles, without funds. That’s why charter school operators and parents staged a demonstration at Nunez’s Los Angeles office Thursday, demanding that he release the rental money.

That, however, would take still another trailer bill.

Contact Dan Walters at dwalters@sacbee.com .