March 18, 2005

Commentary:

Schwarzenegger Fails to Level California’s Playing Field

By Tammy Johnson

The deadline for introducing bills for the current legislative session has passed, and the resolve of Governor Arnold Schwar-zenegger and state legislators will soon be put to the test. If last year’s record gives us anything to go by, bills that raise the state’s fairness quotient will die quickly on the Governor’s desk. Instead of creating a level playing field for all Californians as he promised to do, Schwarzenegger spent most of the year kicking sand in our eyes.

Before dismissing us as special interests, Schwarzenegger should take a closer look at the people who call California home. People of color comprise the state’s majority and those numbers are growing. One out of three Californians is Latino. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Asians and Pacific Islanders will increase by 26 percent, and the number of Blacks by 18 percent. One-quarter of the state is foreign born. Given these numbers, racial justice is an imperative that policy makers can no longer ignore.

It wasn’t a pretty process, but the legislature did pass several bills last year that addressed issues of discrimination, racial profiling and access to opportunity. Ten bills in particular would have had a direct positive impact on communities of color. Schwarzenegger vetoed seven of them.

For example, gaining access to quality health care is no small matter for the state’s 6.5 million uninsured, three out of four of whom are people of color. Despite this reality, Schwarzenegger terminated Senator Deborah Ortiz’s Hospital Charity Care legislation with his veto pen. That bill would have protected the uninsured from unfair billing practices - there is evidence that although the uninsured comprise a tiny percentage of patients, their payments account for the vast majority of hospital profits. This bill would also have reduced payment amounts and established charity care programs for the poor.

Despite the support of five Assembly Republicans, Representative Leland Yee’s (D-12) Language Access bill met a similar fate. That bill was of particular importance to the forty percent of Californians who speak a language other than English. It would have held state and local agencies accountable for meeting bilingual staffing requirements.

Schwarzenegger fabricated reasons for his vetoes. He said the bills were duplicative or unconstitutional, but even a basic reading would indicate how wrong he was. For instance, he claimed that Yee’s bill was unnecessary because the State Personnel Board was doing its job in monitoring state agencies. But the Board’s own audit on bilingual language access revealed that only two of the ten agencies were aware of bilingual requirements.

All things considered, it’s clear that Arnold flunked on fairness. His excuses amount to nothing more than “the dog ate my homework.”

He’ll be tested again this year. Returning to the statehouse is a bill to increase the state’s minimum wage. Signing this bill would provide much needed income to California’s low-wage workforce, of which seventy-eight percent are people of color. Schwarzenegger will have another opportunity to protect the uninsured and low-income families from spiraling debt by signing a Hospital Charity Care bill into law. There are a number of other bills that fight discrimination and provide equal opportunity in jobs, health care, and education that will require gubernatorial muscle.

Being proactive about issues of race isn’t just about doing what is fair, it’s also becoming a political necessity. This is especially true given that half of California’s Senate districts, and forty-five percent of Assembly districts already have people of color majorities. These numbers include key districts represented by Republicans.  If the Governor truly wants to be a uniting force within the state, then he must sign bills that support the aspirations of all Californians.

Tammy Johnson is the Director of the Race and Public Policy Program (RAPP) at the Oakland-based Applied Research Center. She is a coauthor of a new report, California’s New Majority: 2004 Legislative Report Card on Race.

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