Eight-Hour Bill Shows Davis' True Colors

James W. Robinson is advisor to the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The views expressed here are his own

Sooner or later it had to happen. After carefully cultivating the image that he is making good on his campaign pledge to lead California from the center, Gov. Gray Davis has taken a sharp turn leftward by signing legislation making California the only state except Alaska to require overtime pay after an eight-hour day.

The decision unmasks a reality that state Republicans--still shell-shocked after last November's drubbing at the polls--have yet to effectively challenge Davis on, which is that the new governor's course is not nearly as centrist as he would like us to believe.

Flanked on the left by an unarguably liberal California Legislature and the labor, environmental and trial lawyer interest groups that backed his candidacy, Davis barely needs to break a sweat to look moderate by comparison. But he can't leave those constituencies completely empty-handed--and he certainly hasn't.

State labor laws across the nation generally require overtime pay after a 40-hour week. Employers are comfortable with that rule and report that most employees governed by it seem to enjoy the flexibility of working fewer hours some days and making up the time on other days. The bill that Davis signed on Tuesday was one of organized labor's top legislative priorities for the year. It reverses a decision by the Industrial Welfare Commission two years ago to scrap overtime pay after an eight-hour day in favor of the 40-hour rule.

On Jan. 1, 2000, California will thus become one of two states to require overtime pay after eight hours, which in this state affects some 8 million employees and tens of thousands of businesses. California workers and companies alike will lose flexibility. Employees now working more than eight hours a day but less than 40 hours a week will likely lose pay. And California's business climate can now be justifiably indicted by other states competing for investment and jobs as having the country's singularly most rigid regulatory regime governing workplaces.

While unions celebrated, Davis and his aides struggled to claim that, at the governor's insistence, employers' concerns were accommodated in the legislation with provisions allowing various exemptions. But those provisions offer nothing more than a fig leaf of flexibility, and neither Republican legislators nor the state's major business organizations bought it.

Conventional wisdom among Capitol-watchers has held that Davis alternates between tacking a little bit to the left, then a little bit to the right, keeping allies generally mollified, critics off-balance and his centrist image intact. Exhibiting the same message discipline they demonstrated throughout the campaign, Davis and his spinmeisters chant the "I am governing from the center" mantra virtually every day.

But does the message match the record? Forcing state businesses to don a new regulatory straitjacket prescribed in the eight-hour legislation is not the first time in his young administration that Davis has veered off center. Union, environmental and trial lawyer activists have been rewarded with top appointments drawn from their ranks. Davis has orchestrated the reinstitution of a form of affirmative action at the University of California. Despite promising a new relationship with Mexico, he is still on record opposing NAFTA and shows no sign of challenging his union supporters by backing other free-trade measures that can help California.

Tougher challenges to Davis' moderate image lie ahead. Will he approve legislation piling new mandates on health care plans and allowing patients to sue HMOs? How far will he go on gun control, labor and the environment? As reported by The Times' George Skelton, the governor and his aides are alarmed that an avalanche of bills landing on his desk on these subjects could, with increasing frequency, force Davis to choose between his natural political allies and his pledge to govern from the middle.

Davis is no flaming liberal. He seems to genuinely understand the limits of government power and especially the limits to the voters' patience for a return to the halcyon days of big government.

But Sacramento is made up of more than just a governor, and a vast state administration is made up of more than one man. Union leaders, trial lawyers, environmentalists and activists who believe in regulatory expansion are in charge again. Every so often Davis tells them to slow down. But he doesn't tell them to stop.

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