Assembly Kills Toxic Waste Bill : Partisan Vote Foretells Election-Year Animosity

Times Staff Writers

The California Legislature convened its election-year session on a decidedly partisan note Monday as the Democratic-controlled Assembly buried a bill that would have enacted Republican Gov. George Deukmejian's beefed-up program for dealing with toxic wastes.

The toxics measure, which got caught in a partisan battle in the final hours of the 1985 legislative session last September, was rejected Monday on a party-line vote of 46 to 32 after only a few minutes of debate.

The lawmakers returned to the Capitol after nearly four months of vacation to face a blizzard of unfinished business in a year when political self-survival is expected to be the dominant factor in most of their decisions. All the 80 Assembly seats and half the 40 Senate seats will be up for grabs in the 1986 elections.

It also became clear Monday that Democrats will not only battle Republicans during this election year but that occasionally they will battle each other. There were obvious signs of animosity between the Legislature's two top Democratic leaders, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti of Los Angeles.

In the case of the toxics bill, leaders of both parties in the Assembly agreed that Deukmejian's plan to create a new Department of Waste Management is not quite dead, technically. In rejecting the measure, however, Democrats strongly signaled that they will not let the Republican governor take easy credit for resolving a major problem like toxic wastes during a year in which he is seeking a second term.

Deukmejian, in an angry response, blamed the defeat of his legislation on "continued obstructionist behavior of the Assembly Democrats."

"For reasons only known to them--and not shared by others in the Capitol, including Senate Democrats--they continue to play partisan politics with the issue of toxic waste to the detriment of all Californians," Deukmejian said. "If ever we needed a new year's resolution of a nagging problem, the opportunity existed today."

Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale condemned the Democratic vote as a "cheap shot" and suggested that the uneasy bipartisan truce declared early last year between Republican and Democratic leaders appeared to be at an end.

"They obviously are going to make toxics a political issue," Nolan said of the Democratic leadership. "It's a terrible note on which to start this session."

Brown, who strongly hinted late last year that the Assembly would kill Deukmejian's toxics plan because of the governor's public criticism of Democratic leaders, changed his tune Monday, saying the defeat had nothing to do with political partisanship.

"This is serious business. It doesn't have anything to do with politics," Brown said. "I am going to make a major effort to make sure no one introduces election politics into this session."

There was even bickering within the Democratic Party, however.

Different Fight Urged

Roberti took issue with Brown on the toxics issue, telling reporters that Democrats would be wiser to battle Republicans on a toxics matter more easily understood by the public than the governor's reorganization plan. Roberti called the governor's reorganization plan "essentially procedural" and said it should be enacted.

"Let's fight where we disagree--the public expects that--but let's fight on substantive issues the people understand and not try to tell the man how to run his administration," Roberti said during a wide-ranging news conference.

The news conference appeared to be an effort by Roberti to upstage Brown, who is planning to give his own televised State of the State speech Wednesday. (The address originally was scheduled for today but was postponed when President Reagan called a press conference for the same time that Brown was slated to speak.)

Brown hopes to steal some of the thunder from Deukmejian by laying out Democratic alternatives to issues one day before the governor is to deliver his annual televised State of the State message.

Roberti spokesman Bob Forsyth said Roberti "was irritated" because Brown did not consult with the Senate leader in laying out his Democratic agenda.

In most respects, the Legislature's return to the Capitol was a case of politics as usual.

Brief GOP Walkout

The Assembly and Senate continued their long-held custom of convening their sessions late. And when Brown gaveled the 11 a.m. Assembly session to order at 11:25, fewer than half the members were at their desks. Later, Republicans staged a brief walkout, angered over a long Democratic caucus. The Assembly's electronic voting machine took a short vacation of its own, causing consternation among some members who pressed their "aye" buttons only to see their votes recorded as "noes."

By the time Monday's Assembly session ended, little business had been completed other than the defeat of the toxics plan and a motion to adjourn in memory of the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Raiders. Both National Football League teams have been eliminated from competition leading to the Super Bowl.

The Senate met briefly and conducted no major business. In contrast to the partisan fireworks in the lower house, however, senators chatted amiably with each other, remaining in the Senate chamber long after adjournment to catch up on gossip from the holidays.

The Assembly's rejection of the toxics bill took Republican legislative leaders and the Administration by surprise. Just a week ago, Deukmejian's chief of staff, Steven A. Merksamer, expressed confidence that the measure, which already had passed the Senate, would be approved in the lower house. A few hours before the defeat, Deputy Health and Welfare Secretary James Morgan expressed similar confidence.

'We Expect Sincerity'

Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte), who carried the bill on behalf of the Administration, said she changed her mind about the plan because Deukmejian had vetoed several toxics-related bills, including one that would have required farmers to post warning signs around their fields when using dangerous pesticides.

"I don't think (Deukmejian) gets the message very well," Tanner told reporters after the vote. "We expect sincerity in this business. . . . I'd like to see him make better use of the tools he has now."

Key legislative staff members have begun work on a Democratic alternative to Deukmejian's toxics plan. Brown declined Monday to say what form this alternative would take, but it is expected to be very similar to a bill by Sen. Art Torres (D-South Pasadena) that would place responsibility for toxics programs under the secretary of environmental affairs.

The governor's reorganization plan also is alive in another form. In addition to placing his plan in the Tanner bill, Deukmejian submitted his proposal under provisions of the California Executive Reorganization Act. Under that law, the governor's toxics plan automatically will take effect unless one house of the Legislature rejects it by Feb. 8. By its action on Monday, however, the Assembly signaled that it is prepared to kill that package too.

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