Terror-response bills gather headlines, but some scanty results

By Don Thompson Associated Press Writer
Monday January 14, 2002

SACRAMENTO – Gov. Gray Davis won a round of applause in his State of the State speech last week with a flag-waving promise to support the peacekeepers called to duty after last fall’s terrorist attacks. 

“The citizen-soldiers of the National Guard should not have to pay for the privilege of protecting us against terrorism,” Davis said while calling for the state to pay the difference between civilian and guard pay for state employees called to active duty. 

It’s a safe promise to keep even in these tight budgetary times: Though about 500 state employees have been called to active duty by the president, Davis’ Department of Finance acknowledged they already are being compensated. Davis’ proposal applies only to about 10 guardsmen activated by the governor, at a cost of roughly $30,000. 

The promise is among a flurry of headline-grabbing proposals by Davis and lawmakers to protect the state and honor victims and peacekeepers. 

Yet several are equally likely to matter little even if adopted. 

Some lawmakers and civil liberties reacted sharply when Davis proposed the state let police monitor e-mail, Internet sites and multiple cell phones used by criminal and terrorism suspects. 

But Davis’ proposals just mirror federal roving wiretap laws already used in most cases. A fellow Democrat, Senate leader John Burton of San Francisco, accused the governor of grandstanding with a proposal he and other critics said would make state law redundant to federal law. 

George Vinson, Davis’ security adviser, said the state rarely uses its wiretap law. Last year, only 88 wiretap orders were issues under the more restrictive law, 79 of them in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to the state attorney general. 

Burton also said Davis’ proposals for tougher penalties for terrorism or hoaxes also simply duplicated federal laws for the same violations. 

A day after Davis called for making state law “at least as tough as national law,” Burton created a special Senate committee to oversee counter-terror proposals “so we aren’t running around in an election year duplicating a lot of (federal) stuff.” 

Davis’ get-tough measures echo those proposed by Assembly Republicans last month, though Vinson predicted the governor will find Democratic sponsors for the legislation. 

But while the Republicans propose to make terrorists eligible for the state death penalty, Vinson said Davis won’t fight that battle, which would require voters’ approval statewide. 

“So far it does not appear death has been a big deterrent to people associated with (alleged terrorist mastermind) Osama bin Laden,” said Assembly Democratic spokesman Luke Breit. 

Assembly Republicans beat the Democrats with their early 17-point package of anti-terrorism bills, but they’re outnumbered in the Legislature. Any of their proposals with a chance of passing will likely be fused into a pending package being developed by Democrats who held a series of statewide committee hearings after Sept. 11. 

Breit expects Democrats to initially concentrate on victim assistance, jobless benefits and finding money for existing programs that need increases to prepare for terrorist attacks, such as public health. 

“The committees are taking a look at what’s going to actually be helpful,” Breit said – “helpful to people right away.”