Recall popular as bankrupt auction

Most California agricultural leaders are as enthused about the recall of Gov. Gray Davis as they would be at a farmstead bankruptcy auction.

Tractors go cheap at those sales. However, the auction also means a farmer is out of business. He may not have been the best farmer in the county. Nevertheless, his neighbors hate to see him lose his farm, especially since they know they could count on him for help from time to time.

Democratic and liberal Davis has not been particularly popular with conservative California farmers and ranchers, but he has been friendly enough to make many influential agriculture leaders say the recall is not a good thing. After all, two years ago he signed the biggest tax break ($100 million annually) California agriculture has ever received.

Several agricultural groups supported Davis when he ran for a second term last fall, and many others stayed neutral. The most notable exception was California Farm Bureau Federation, which supported Bill Simon, Davis' opponent who is expected to run in the recall.

“Ten months later after we went to the inaugural ball. Now California is recalling him,” said Steve Beckley, president of the California Plant Health Association.

“It is real interesting watching the train wreck — you cannot take your eyes off it.”

Beckley acknowledges agribusiness is frustrated with California state government and the increasing cost of doing business tied to high energy costs and increasingly onerous regulations and a huge state budget deficit that is being partly pared down with increasing regulatory agency fees heaped up on the regulated farmers and agribusinesses.

Frustration aplenty

“There is a lot of frustration with government within CPHA's membership on a number of fronts — workers comp, the increasing mill tax, the cost of regulations to name just three,” said Beckley. “Our members own a lot of rolling stock and when you triple license fees overnight, you get mad.”

Recently, the state announced that license fees would automatically triple because the state was having difficulty in meetings its debt obligations. A deficit of $38 billion is projected by next July, and the state's credit rating fell to near junk bond levels recently.

The recall is set for Oct. 7. The list of people who want to take Davis' job if voters recall him is growing daily. It ranges from kooks to legitimate contenders. If voters recall Davis, it becomes winner-takes-all. You can get on the ballot for $3,500 and 65 signatures from your own party members or for $10,000 cash and no signatures. The person getting the most votes wins. There will be no runoff.

The election is expected to cost taxpayers $35 million to conduct, and candidates are expected to spend $50 million or more trying to win a job no one in their right mind would willingly covet. California is the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, depending on who you talk to. It's also broke and facing a most uncertain future.

The business climate is deteriorating rapidly as the state continues to hurl itself toward a population of 50 million people within the next 25 years. There are about 32 million in the state now.

Little ag change

Unfortunately, kicking Davis out would change little for agriculture, said Earl Williams, president of California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association.

“If Davis is replaced by a Republican governor, nothing would change in the legislature. It would still have its anti-business, liberal agenda,” said Williams. All the governor can do is propose and veto.

“A recall does not help us,” said Joel Nelsen, president of Citrus Mutual, Exeter, Calif. “The governor is obligated to shore up his constituency. He knows agriculture's antagonists can turn out voters in greater numbers than we can, so he is going to run to the left and its legislative agenda. That is not good for agriculture. However, Davis has to do what he has to do to stave off the recall.”

A Republican governor would, admittedly, bring a more pro-business bent to political leadership, but as Williams said, agriculture “is engaged” with Davis. “The door is open to us to the governor's office now. He has and will listen to agriculture,” said Williams.

That door was opened largely by the Agribusiness Presidents Council, a group of agricultural leaders representing more than 30 agricultural organizations in the state.

“Getting through to the governor is going to be more difficult from now until the election because he is pulling key people off his staff and putting them back on the campaign trail during the recall,” said Nelsen.

“I would guess you could say I am satisfied with the status quo, as bad as it is,” said Williams. “That is not to say the huge deficit California faces is OK, nor are the economic trends we see for agriculture in the state. Workers compensation is certainly not OK.

“However, kicking the governor out of office for the sake of kicking him out is not going to change much. Bottom line is what would it accomplish? It would show more lack of confidence in government, and I do not see that as a business positive,” added Williams.

“There is a segment of the citrus industry who do not like Gray Davis or any Democrat, but I do not see Davis as the major problem in government. It is the liberal legislature,” said Nelsen.

Barry Bedwell, the new president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League and another member of the ag business president's council said “there is no great joy in the recall. For one thing it takes away from dealing with the many issues that are costing agriculture money.”

Bedwell believes the recall will impact the need to resolve key agricultural issues like air quality standards, workers comp, funding for UC Cooperative Extension and the mill tax on pesticides sales. How is uncertain.

“We have to keep those issues in play, regardless of what happens with the recall,” said Bedwell.

The field is growing to replace Davis in the first recall of a U.S. governor in 82 years and the first in California's history.

And, many of those will be going to agricultural political action committees to finance campaigns. The final list of candidates will be known by Aug. 9 with less than two months of campaigning to follow.

In the most heavily regulated state in the nation, a defeat of Davis would mean administrators of state agencies impacting agriculture, like the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, Cal-EPA, California Department of Food and Agriculture, the State Water Resources Control Board would be replaced. Whether that is good or bad is up to debate.

“We have no past recall history and have no idea of what will happen if the recall is successful,” said Beckley.

On a broader scale, fallout from the recall could have far-reaching political implications. California has become a state of laws-by-ballot-initiatives. When special interest groups cannot get laws through the legislature, they try to do it at the ballot box.

The result has often been far-reaching laws with major impacts. Proposition 65 is an example of that. California voters in 1986 approved an initiative called the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. It requires the state to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm. This list, which must be updated at least once a year, has grown to include approximately 750 chemicals since it was first published in 1987.

Proposition 65 requires businesses to notify Californians about significant amounts of chemicals in the products they purchase, in their homes or workplaces, or that are released into the environment.

Prop 65 has created a regulatory morass for California businesses to deal with. Laboratory detection of chemicals has become so minute that there is virtually no compound that can be legally declared free from any harmful toxins.

Proposition 65 got on the ballot with the same generous provisions for signature collection as the recall Davis ballot.

If Davis is recalled, the same guillotine will hang over future governors or statewide office holders. If a special interest group does not like what a politician is doing, they could recall him.

The recall option has been available for almost 100 years, and it has been tried unsuccessfully 31 times until Davis' recall attempt.

Signatures purchase

Perhaps it was growing frustration with government due to the energy crisis and huge budget deficit, but whatever the reasons, it was surprisingly easy to gain the necessary signatures to recall Davis. All it took was money, $1.7 million from a San Diego congressman to pay “volunteers” $1 for every signature they collected.

Recall Davis proponents collected almost twice the signatures needed (12 percent of the number who voted last November in the gubernatorial race). What was even more surprising was that more than 80 percent of signatures collected in a well-run effort to get the recall on the ballot were certified as valid.

What the Davis recall signals is that the recall process may supplant the traditional election process.

“The initiative process has long been misused to legislate by initiative and now the recall process is following that same route,” said one Sacramento consultant.

The recall process was created to get rid of people who abuse their offices, not due to job dissatisfaction, as in the case of Davis.

“This is a slippery slope that now tells people who run for governor and other statewide offices in primaries and general elections that that just because you win an election does not mean you cannot be kicked out of office in the middle of your term,” said the consultant. The political ramifications of that could be huge.

“I was surprised at how quickly the recall came together,” said Nelsen. “What troubles me is that the democrats will do the same thing to republicans if they win the governorship.

“When you have three million people voting against someone, it is not that difficult to find 900,000 who are willing to sign a recall,” said Nelsen. “All you have to have is the bucks to collect the signatures.”

Of course, Davis has to be recalled for that to become an even greater fear that it already is. While Davis' approval rating is at historic lows, no one is counting him out of the recall. He likes to tell people his political obituary has been written at least four times during his 25 years in public service, yet he is still around.

Prior to his election as governor in 1998, Davis served as lieutenant governor (1995-99), state Controller (1987-95), state assemblyman (1983-87) and chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown 1975-1981).

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