TCS Daily

Welcome to unGovernor's Island

By Hugh Hewitt - August 16, 2001 12:00 AM

"Governor Davis should be here," remarked Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne to Los Angeles Times reporter Julie Cart. "No one state can be an island," Kempthorne continued. "We need to work together."

That's a little like a bank teller wanting to work together with John Dillinger. But it's easy to understand Kempthorne's frustration. Most of the West's problems have California at their root, including the power crisis, dwindling water supplies, the risk of catastrophic fire and the impact of federal endangered species laws. There are 18 states represented in the Western Governors Association, and the chief execs try to get together to hammer out a united front on at least some of these matters. But not California's unGovernor. Davis has skipped five of the six get-togethers that have occurred on his watch. That's too bad for California. Any counsel Davis would have gotten from his colleagues would have been better than the advice he used in dealing with the Golden State's energy problems. If California is indeed an island, it's beginning to look a lot like Atlantis.

This year's meeting fell at a uniquely busy time for Davis. It is bill time in Sacramento -- the month after the Legislature wraps up its work and gets out of the steamy Capitol. The Governor stays behind to sort through hundreds of measures deciding which to sign and which to reject.

For the first time in memory, Davis used bill season in 2000 to raise money. Even given California's loose rules on the appearance of impropriety, that bit of fund-raising chutzpah startled observers of the process. What, after all, are you going to say to a Governor who asks for a contribution even as a bill you like or dislike sits on his desk? No thanks, Gray, I think I'll pass?

There is no word yet on whether Davis is still dialing for dollars even as he dodges meeting his colleagues. But he is making decisions. Two underscore the surreal world of California politics these days.

First, high-tech has now met the sport of kings. Davis signed legislation this week that will permit telephone and Internet wagering on horse races in California. Davis defended his action by saying that no increase in wagering would result from playing the ponies via remote. But no one besides the Governor is pretending that this move is anything other than a boon to the bettors. Horse racing interests have contributed $189,000 to the Davis re-election effort since he took office, reports the Times, so I guess we should not be surprised. What is surprising is the complete lack of warning or discussion preceding the new law's taking effect. One can only guess how much horse racing interests will chip in between now and November 2002, but this bill has had to make the collective house fold its poker face.

I don't like the bill, but I like the unGovernor's lying about its effect even less. How can a bill that allows home betting not lead to increased wagering? And how can that be a good thing for the state? There is something to be said for allowing people to leave their money in California as opposed to Nevada, and tribal casinos have gone a long way to doing that. But racetrack gambling is a different proposition entirely. The ill effects of the new change will be felt across the state, but they will be invisible.

The Davis facility with falsehood is not limited to the big subjects. It extends even to the otherwise routine act of punishing his political foes. State Sen. Ross Johnson is a longtime Republican heavyweight, who worked with the GOP and tried hard -- and unsuccessfully -- to block a Davis push for a tax hike to cover the billions in surplus, which the unGovernor has blown in a matter of months. Davis got the tax hike; now he's getting revenge.

Johnson had led the way for the passage of one of those little bills that matter a great deal to a few people: Authority for the state school system to run a penmanship contest. The idea is that it would be a good idea to hold up penmanship as a desirable trait. Like the spelling bees that have long consumed elementary students, a cursive writing contest is hardly the stuff of high drama. Johnson would have made some teachers happy (and not a few doctors' patients as well).

But Davis vetoed the bill. His veto message said this new contest would detract from his goals of improving student performance in math and reading. His message also warned of "increased service demands for instructors, class time and instructional materials to teach pupils the penmanship styles being tested." That's really what he wrote. It's absurd, of course, but paybacks are hell as they say.

So you can see why Davis can't make it to more out-of-state meetings. His increasing Queegishness has many waiting for a strawberry hunt, even as the state blows millions on the resale of surplus power it holds under long-term contracts negotiated by Davis' handpicked team.

Too bad Sen. Johnson didn't pass a bill establishing a handicapping contest, or a course on buying high and selling low, or even an award for dissembling. Those are skills much prized in the world of Gray Davis, and he might have gone for such a measure -- provided, of course, if his fund-raising needs had permitted.

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