Dan Walters: 'Job killer' list signals start of 'big game' in state Capitol

04/09/2013 12:00 AM

04/09/2013 8:28 AM

In the world of high-stakes poker, one continuous – and private – game in a luxurious Las Vegas hotel reigns supreme.

It's known simply as "the big game," and millions of dollars may change hands.

The state's Capitol counterpart is the never-ending conflict that pits business and employer interests against four groups – labor unions, environmentalists, consumer-protection activists and personal-injury lawyers – over issues with multibillion-dollar consequences.

The "big four," as some have dubbed them, are closely aligned with the Capitol's majority Democrats, and each year, friendly Democratic legislators introduce hundreds of bills in pursuit of their ideological or financial goals.

They typically carve out new benefits for unions and their members, directly or indirectly raise taxes, impose new environmental and/or consumer-protection regulations, or rewrite tort law to make it easier to sue and collect in lawsuits.

Each spring, once all the measures have been introduced, the state Chamber of Commerce singles out a few dozen it considers to be the most onerous and labels them "job killers," thus setting parameters of that year's big game.

The bills on the list are those the four liberal groups most want to enact, and they are, therefore, the ones that the chamber and other business groups most want to kill. And at the end of the session, the wins and losses for both sides are toted up.

The chamber-led business community has been remarkably successful in either killing or neutralizing the bills it publicly identifies. From 1997 to 2012, 540 bills made the list and just 43 made it into law, fewer than 8 percent.

Most of the casualties occurred in the Legislature, but governors – Democrats Jerry Brown and Gray Davis and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger – have vetoed most of the few that have reached them.

The 2013 "job killer" list was released Monday with 32 bills, all of which fit the pattern. Labor unions appear to be making a particularly strong push this year, apparently believing that the Legislature's expanded Democratic majorities will improve their chances.

Union entries include an automatic increase in the minimum wage and expansion of family leave.

Another measure would partially undo last year's reform of workers' compensation.

Several targeted measures are constitutional amendments to make it easier to raise taxes and would test the Democratic supermajorities. However, the chamber has boasted of backing nine Democrats who won Assembly seats last year.

Lawyers would benefit, meanwhile, from the expanded opportunities to sue employers in several bills. And several others would restrict "fracking," a technique for exploiting California's vast shale oil deposits, a major issue with environmentalists.

Let the game begin.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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