Davis Pushes for Changes in Coastal Panel

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Gray Davis' urgent push to make the state Coastal Commission a constitutional entity by weakening the Legislature's political influence over the agency will face its first test today in the Assembly.

Supporters of the governor's bill hope to get it approved by both houses this week, so Davis could sign it immediately and it could take effect as law in May.

Backers say such speed would demonstrate to the state Supreme Court that action had been taken, not only to repair the commission's constitutional flaws, but also to help California fight a Bush administration initiative to reopen the coasts off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties to offshore oil drilling.

"Given the Bush administration's record on environmental issues, and how it conflicts with California's viewpoint, we have to remain vigilant," said Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), who introduced the governor's bill in the Assembly.

An identical plan was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), chairwoman of the Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee, which is scheduled to vote on her bill Tuesday. The twin bills were introduced so the issues could be thoroughly aired in the Assembly and Senate and not be subject to redundant hearings when the two proposals cross paths in the Capitol.

Davis called the Legislature into a second special session last week to quickly respond to a controversial ruling by the state 3rd District Court of Appeal, which held that the commission's structure violates the constitutional separation of powers.

The agency belongs to the executive branch, but the Legislature is able to exercise political influence, the court said, by appointing eight of the commission's 12 members to open-ended terms, with the ability to remove members at any time. In the past, legislative leaders have removed and replaced their appointees for political reasons.

The governor's four appointees also serve open-ended terms, a circumstance not challenged by the court. Davis' remedial plan would fix the terms of the Legislature's appointees at two years and prohibit removal of commissioners before the expiration of their terms.

Senate leader John L. Burton (D-San Francisco), who urged Davis to call the special session, voiced concern that, unless the commission structure was made legal quickly, the state Supreme Court could take the case on appeal and conceivably issue a ruling that disbands it.

This, Burton and others argued, would turn planning along the coast into "chaos" and expose the scenic resource to unregulated development.

Republicans, however, have argued that the commission needs fixing far beyond mere tinkering with the membership. They say that, since its creation by the voters in 1972, the commission has impaired the rights of landowners to develop their coastal property.

Jackson said she foresaw opposition to the governor's bills from Republicans and developers, but noted the legislation can be passed by majority Democrats without Republican support. But Jackson said she hoped some Republicans would support the bill. "Some of our Republican colleagues who represent coastal areas are fairly disposed toward the Coastal Commission," she said.

Jackson noted that, while most attention has focused on the composition of the commission's membership, environmentalists also are concerned about the Bush administration's court fight to open the coast to oil drilling.

California sued the Interior Department during the final months of the Clinton administration, when the Interior Department said it did not need approval of the Coastal Commission in deciding whether to extend 36 leases off the California coast.

California won in the federal trial court. The U.S. government appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and lost there too. The Bush administration is expected to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Jackson and Davis administration officials said federal law designates the Coastal Commission as the California agency whose permission must be obtained before oil development can occur in federal waters off the coast.

Last year, the Bush administration moved to prohibit development of old leases off the coast of Florida, where the president's brother, Jeb Bush, is governor. Davis asked Bush for the same treatment, but was turned down in a letter from Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Norton said a major difference between the California and Florida situations was that "Florida opposes coastal drilling and California does not." The letter misstated California's long opposition to offshore drilling, but the Bush administration stood fast and went to court, where it lost twice.

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