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Ruling Challenges Deukmejian Plan to Cut Cal/OSHA

Times Staff Writer

Gov. George Deukmejian acted without legal authority when he called for a federal takeover of Cal/OSHA--the state’s worker safety program--without previous approval of the Legislature, a Superior Court judge concluded Friday.

Judge Roger K. Warren ruled that a Feb. 6 letter that Deukmejian sent to U.S. Secretary of Labor William Brock, calling for the federal government to assume responsibility for safety regulations in private workplaces in California, is “null, void and without legal effect.”

The court action, in a suit brought by individual workers and local unions, was immediately hailed by those who opposed Deukmejian’s plan to cut about 360 jobs and $8 million from Cal/OSHA’s budget.

Rulings Conflict

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However, Judge Warren’s decision is in conflict with an earlier ruling in a separate case, in which a San Francisco Superior Court judge concluded that the governor did have the authority he needed to begin dismantling Cal/OSHA and invite a federal takeover.

Pointing to the conflicting rulings, Deukmejian speculated Friday that the issue probably would be settled in a higher state court.

Despite the latest court ruling, Deukmejian made it clear that he intends to go ahead with his plans to dismantle Cal/OSHA on July 1 and that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is already at work preparing to take over the enforcement program.

“I don’t think that the taxpayers need to have California administering that program when the federal government that administers it in 25 or so states is also equipped to do that,” Deukmejian told reporters.

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Budget Veto May Be Possible

Under state law, Deukmejian can veto or “blue pencil” budget items approved by the Legislature, and he might attempt to trim the Cal/OSHA budget in that way if lawmakers decide to include full funding. Judge Warren’s ruling does not address the question of whether the governor can legally eliminate Cal/OSHA’s enforcement program by such a budget action.

Warren’s ruling is a simple declaration that the governor lacks the authority to move, without the Legislature’s consent, to eliminate a key element of the Cal/OSHA program--enforcement of worker safety rules in private businesses.

Under federal law, individual states may choose to run their own worker safety programs if their standards are at least as demanding as those of the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Should a state decide to pull out, the U.S. Secretary of Labor is required to step in and assume responsibility for enforcing federal worker safety regulations.

Judge Warren held that Deukmejian, acting alone, did not represent “the state” within the meaning of the federal law.

In January, amid concerns about a shortage of state revenue, Deukmejian proposed cutting Cal/OSHA--as the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health is commonly known--eliminating the regulation of private employers while leaving in place state enforcement of safety rules for public employers and a worker safety consulting service.

Immediate Outcry

The announcement resulted in an immediate outcry from liberal legislators, labor unions and workers, who argued that state safety rules are tougher than federal regulations and that state inspections are more timely and more stringent than their federal counterparts.

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The switch-over to federal inspection would result in more workplace injuries and deaths, they asserted.

But Deukmejian stuck by his decision, even when it became clear that prophecies of budget deficits were wrong and that there would, in fact, be a sizable budget surplus next year.

“He’s got a huge budget surplus now and he’s thinking of saving $8 million on the backs of California’s workers,” charged Joseph Remcho, the attorney who represented the workers in the Sacramento lawsuit.

Remcho said the latest ruling would give his clients cause for further action if Deukmejian failed to withdraw his letter to Labor Secretary Brock.

“I think we are going to have Cal/OSHA,” Remcho asserted.

‘Graceful Way Out’

“The ruling gives the governor a graceful way out,” said Dick James, a paper mill worker from Shasta County and one of those who filed the suit against Deukmejian. “The governor would be an absolute hero if he said, ‘Hey, I’m man enough to say I did not think this through.’ ”

The court action “gives us hope,” said Thomas E. Rankin, research director for the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.

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Last month, in response to a legal challenge brought by state workers and their unions, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Roy L. Wonder ruled that Deukmejian “has the lawful authority to return the enforcement of occupational safety and health regulations to the federal government.”

But Lawrence Newberry, an attorney representing state employees and their unions in that case, contended that the results in the two legal challenges are not necessarily contradictory because the judges faced different issues and were being asked for different legal remedies.

Ruling Falls Short

Newberry conceded, however, that Warren’s ruling falls short of the kind of action that those who filed the suits are ultimately seeking--one that would force the governor to begin to take the steps needed to keep Cal/OSHA intact.

Warren is the same judge who last month ruled against Deukmejian in a case that challenged the governor’s implementation of Proposition 65, the anti-toxics initiative approved by voters last November.

In that case, Warren ordered Deukmejian to add 201 toxic chemicals to the list of substances covered by the measure, which limits discharges of listed chemicals into drinking water supplies. Deukmejian appealed that decision and it could take more than a year before the legal issues are resolved.


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