Governor Hit by Stunning Defeat on Toxic Waste
Gov. George Deukmejian suffered a stunning defeat Thursday when the Assembly killed his plan to overhaul the state’s handling of toxic chemicals and create a new waste management department.
Charging that the governor’s proposal would weaken existing enforcement of important toxic regulations, the Democratic majority in the Assembly voted to reject the plan, which had been one of Republican Deukmejian’s highest priorities.
In an emotionally charged atmosphere of mistrust, lawmakers rejected Administration assurances that flaws in the program would be corrected later.
“We cannot ignore clear errors,” Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) said in urging his colleagues to reject the plan. “When you vote (against the proposal), you vote to protect the public.”
The Assembly, dividing strictly along partisan lines, voted 46 to 31 to scuttle the proposal.
In doing so, Assembly Democrats dealt the governor his biggest defeat of the legislative session. The action briefly revived the kind of bitter partisanship that dominated relations between the Legislature and Deukmejian during his first two years in office.
“They trashed our plan in a flurry of self-serving and misleading rhetoric,” Deukmejian said in a statement. “Instead of becoming part of the solution, Assembly Democrats, under pressure from Speaker Willie Brown, have become part of the problem.”
In a separate action, the state Senate voted 30 to 2 to approve a rival toxics reorganization measure by Sen. Art Torres (D-South Pasadena). In a letter to Deukmejian, Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) suggested that the Torres bill could be amended to produce a plan that would satisfy the governor.
Deukmejian had proposed consolidating the duties of a dozen government agencies now responsible for hazardous wastes into a single waste management department to be headed by a Cabinet-level official.
But under the legislative mechanism chosen by the governor, the lawmakers could not amend the proposal to correct its defects. The Assembly and the Senate only had the power to accept or veto the plan.
While Democrats said they favored the idea of creating a single department, they argued that Deukmejian’s plan would have undermined major toxic protections, including laws governing water quality, underground storage of chemicals and toxic farm runoff water.
Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda) charged that the plan could nullify up to 15,000 cleanup orders issued against polluters by state and regional water boards. In addition, regulation of thousands of toxic pits that could contaminate ground water would have been put in a state of limbo, he said.
Called ‘Dirty Politics’
Republicans countered that the Democrats were motivated by what Assemblyman Ernie Konnyu (R-Saratoga) called “dirty politics.”
The Democrats, Konnyu said, “are willing to play politics with the health of the people of this state. What the majority is really doing is opening the 1986 gubernatorial campaign.”
Until last week, it appeared that the governor’s reorganization proposal had sufficient bipartisan support to avoid a legislative veto and would have taken effect July 16.
But the plan began to unravel last week when Health and Welfare Secretary David Swoap testified before an Assembly committee that the plan contained “drafting errors.”
At first, he said there were two technical mistakes. Later, he revised the estimate to four. And on Wednesday, he acknowledged that there were at least 11 errors and proposed that they be corrected in a hastily drafted 62-page follow-up bill.
Most of the flaws coincided with criticism made by the Sierra Club and other environmentalists months ago when the plan was unveiled.
Swoap and legislators debated whether the defects were mere technical errors, as Swoap consistently maintained, or whether they represented Administration efforts to reduce the effectiveness of toxic regulations. He insisted that the mistakes were not an effort to undercut existing controls.
But legislators, who were never shown the proposed follow-up bill, repeatedly questioned whether they could trust Swoap’s assurances that defects would be fixed and that enforcement would not be weakened.
Assembly Democrats claimed that as written, the governor’s reorganization plan would have:
- Gutted the landmark Toxic Pits Act, signed by Deukmejian last year, that gave state officials the authority to order the federal government to clean up the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley. Kesterson is contaminated by selenium-laden farm runoff water that has caused death and birth defects in wild birds.
- Undermined a law signed by Deukmejian in 1983 that established the nation’s strictest monitoring requirements for underground tanks containing hazardous chemicals.
- Stripped authority from the state Water Resources Control Board and regional water quality control boards that in recent years have been in the forefront of the crackdown on toxic pollutants.
- Exempted firms that discharge hazardous substances onto land from the state’s normally required environmental review process.
- Created a gap in enforcement from July 16, when the reorganization plan would have taken effect, until Dec. 1, when the new department would have been ready to take over.
- Limited the public’s ability to use appeal processes to force stricter governmental action to clean up toxic chemicals.
- Reduced the total number of state employees working to enforce toxic regulations.
Some legislators also were angered by tactics used by the Administration to round up support and soften criticism of the plan.
For example, the governor submitted only a 26-page summary of his proposal to the bipartisan Little Hoover Commission, which gave its unanimous endorsement.
And members of the Water Resources Control Board received the 177-page plan only 24 hours before they were scheduled to testify about it before an Assembly committee.
The water board and Legislative Analyst William G. Hamm were among those who joined environmentalists in pointing out serious flaws in the plan.
But Deukmejian cast his defeat strictly in partisan terms: “On a lock-step straight party vote, Assembly Democrats today let irresponsible partisanship override good sense in dealing with our No. 1 public health problem: toxic waste management.”
The governor said he will submit another reorganization plan but offered no specifics or timetable.