SACRAMENTO – With just two days to clear the dozens of bills still sitting on his desk, Gov. Gray Davis Sunday signed legislation that would give Mexican farm workers brought to the United States during World War II more time to file legal action for payment.
The governor also signed an array of education bills that would increase the powers of school districts that issue charters for charter schools and provide aid to high schools.
Davis has until midnight Monday to sign or veto the bills that passed the Legislature, which ended its session Aug. 31.
Still awaiting action are bills that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain California driver’s licenses, give farm workers the right to third-party mediation during contract negotiations and let Indian tribes have greater influence over areas they consider sacred sites.
Those bills are considered among the most politically difficult for Davis, who’s facing Republican financier Bill Simon in his race for a second term. For example, signing the farm worker bill would earn Davis the enmity of farmers in the Central Valley who are some of his largest campaign contributors, while a veto could alienate Hispanic voters who are some of Democrat Davis’ most loyal supporters.
Davis backed one cause dear to Hispanic leaders Sunday by signing AB2913 by Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, D-Los Angeles, which will extend the statute of limitations for payment claims for braceros. They are the more than 300,000 Mexican farm workers contracted by the U.S. government to relieve the labor shortage during World War II.
“It’s an outrage that many braceros who worked in California during a national time of need have never been paid for their labor,” Davis said in a statement released Sunday. “This bill will help pay a long-overdue debt.”
The labor agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments required a portion of the braceros’ wages to be withheld as a savings fund, to be paid upon their return to Mexico.
Many never received the money, often because they neither knew it was owed to them nor could navigate the bureaucracy when they did try to claim it. Experts have estimated the 10 percent of wages withheld between 1942 and 1950 could now total up to $1 billion, including interest.
Davis also signed a bill Sunday, clarifying the state’s position on worker rights in relation to immigration status.
In education, Davis addressed what legislators had identified as a weakness in the state’s decade-old charter school program by signing the bill by Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes, D-Fresno, that limits where the publicly funded schools can operate.
Charter schools are public schools run by nonprofit or private organizations, such as parent and teacher groups and in some cases, for-profit companies. The schools, which are monitored by individual school districts that grant the charter, are allowed to bypass much of the red tape that bogs down regular public schools in exchange for increased accountability.
Reyes said the bill will make it easier for local communities to oversee charter schools.
“The governor agreed with the Legislature in that the charter schools need more oversight and accountability,” Reyes said. “You’ll see more parents involved. You’ll see more accountability.”
Along with the education and labor bills, Davis signed a package of legislation aimed at helping the state control sprawl and accommodate the housing needs of its 35 million residents.
The trio of bills all focus efforts on promoting development within already developed areas, also called infill, and reducing urban sprawl in a state that’s losing 50,000 acres of farmland per year.