Gov. Davis is fighting to broaden his authority

By David Kravets The Associated Press
Thursday January 03, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — As he enters a tough re-election campaign, Gov. Gray Davis is assuming unprecedented powers that have landed him in court with key legislators and civil libertarians. 

Davis, a Democrat in the final year of his first term, has exercised emergency powers to cope with the electricity crisis, pushed to keep some criminals locked up indefinitely past their release dates, and tangled with the Legislature over his veto authority. 

“He’s certainly flexing political muscle,” Santa Clara Law School scholar Gerald Uelmen said. “The convergence of a number of issues would suggest that at least the governor is not reluctant to test the limits of his power.” 

In some cases, Davis is pushing into areas not faced by earlier governors, primarily those related to extending prison time for murderers and sexual offenders. In others, he has become mired in the usual fights between the executive and legislative branches. 

Last January, Davis declared a state of emergency because of rolling blackouts and rising electricity bills. He seized contracts with energy suppliers, streamlined the application process for new power plants, ordered rebates for consumers who conserve, and directed shopping centers to reduce their outdoor lighting. 

Davis’ aides also negotiated long-term electricity contracts committing the state to pay at least $43 billion over the next decade. Details of the contracts were released only after Davis was sued by Republicans and news organizations including The Associated Press. The governor said the contracts helped stabilize a volatile energy market; critics said they locked the state into paying prices far higher than the current market rates. 

After a summer without blackouts, some lawmakers have called on the governor to lift the state of emergency. State Sen. Debra Bowen, a Democrat who chairs a key energy committee, said: “We shouldn’t be suspending the constitutional checks and balances for any longer than is absolutely necessary.” 

But Garry South, Davis’ top political adviser, cited the recent collapse of Enron Corp. and the financial problems of San Jose-based Calpine Corp. as more signs the crisis continues. 

“Anyone that tells you that the energy crisis is over, and that no more problems will follow us on that front, is living on another planet,” South said. 

The energy crisis — combined with a crumbling economy that hit California’s tech sector particularly hard — has evolved into a budget crisis, and some key legislators are concerned about the power Davis will wield as he decides where to cut spending to make up for a $12 billion shortfall. 

Davis already is in a court fight with Senate President John Burton and Assembly Speaker Robert M. Hertzberg, both Democrats, over the governor’s changes to the state budget. 

Davis, like most governors, has line item veto authority to strike individual appropriations from the budget. But Burton and Hertzberg — along with the American Civil Liberties Union — said Davis overstepped his authority last summer when he struck language on racial profiling from a $3 million appropriation. 

The deleted passage would have required law enforcement agencies to report why they stopped a driver, whether they searched the car and whether they arrested anyone. 

Davis spokesman Byron Tucker said the governor changed the wording because the legislation did not give law enforcement enough money to carry out all the provisions. 

Ultimately, the dispute could go to the California Supreme Court. 

Separately, the governor is locked in a dispute over his authority to reverse the decisions of the state Parole Board. A state judge has ruled that Davis has unlawfully made it his blanket policy to deny parole to nearly all murderers. 

In three years, Davis has reversed the board in 64 of 65 cases in which it paroled a murderer, agreeing only in the case of a battered woman who shot her abusive husband in 1986. 

State lawyers have said the governor reviews each convict on a case-by-case basis but has absolute authority to reverse parole decisions. 

Davis is also pushing for more authority to keep sex offenders locked up past their release dates. In February, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the director of the Department of Mental Health, who is appointed by Davis, has the authority to keep violent sex offenders locked up as long as the director wants. 

Now, the law allows rapists and molesters to be locked up past their release dates for renewable two-year periods if two independent mental health experts conclude the convict is likely to commit another such crime. About 300 such offenders are locked up in California. 

As Davis moves through the courts on these fronts, three Republicans will compete in the March 5 primary for the right to replace him: Secretary of State Bill Jones, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and businessman Bill Simon.