Expect four more years of big biz favoritism
Through most of this year’s one-sided campaign for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger tried mightily to convey the impression of an unbiased official simply looking out for the best interests of California. The voters bought that message, as Schwarzenegger’s easy win demonstrated.But the reality is that since becoming governor, in virtually every dispute pitting big business interests against consumers, stockholders, workers, taxpayers or the environment, Schwarzenegger has come down on the side of business.Now, with no need to face the voters for years, if ever again, Schwarzenegger has a completely free hand to favor the business interests that have contributed almost $200 million to his various committees and even bankrolled the pyrotechnics featured in many of his annual autumn bill-signing ceremonies.Yes, he did famously sign one bill opposed by the business lobby. That would be AB32, the anti-global warming bill that got the governor’s mug on magazine covers, TV shows and newspaper front pages the world around.But even that bill contains a seldom-noted escape clause allowing Schwarzenegger and all future governors to suspend its limits on greenhouse gas emissions whenever they see fit to declare an emergency. There are no definitions of what comprises an emergency.With much less fanfare, Schwarzenegger this year deep-sixed plenty of other measures that might have made life easier for workers, consumers and stockholders.One nixed bill, titled the Honest Corporate Reporting Act, would have forced corporations to provide shareholders the same profit-and-loss numbers they show tax authorities, a measure the state Franchise Tax Board called a significant audit tool. Because of the veto, California corporations are free to maintain two sets of books, one looking rosy and intended to drive stock prices up and the other reflecting reality, which may be very different.Another veto killed a bill that could have forced payment of legal fees and court costs run up by the state attorney general while fighting businesses later found by the courts to have violated public rights by polluting water, discriminating illegally or defrauding customers or shareholders.Schwarzenegger originally favored this bill, whose sponsor, state Sen. Denise Ducheny of San Diego said she wanted to pay back taxpayers when the attorney general goes toe-to-toe with major corporate wrongdoers and prevails in court. Schwarzenegger flip-flopped only after the California Manufacturers & Technology Association made this bill a top veto priority. Many members of that group have been targets of public lawsuits, but many also are major donors to Schwarzenegger.At the same time, Schwarzenegger’s appointees have never stopped looking after business interests wherever they conflict with consumers. One example came when the Public Utilities Commission in early fall quietly lifted most price controls for local telephone service. The commission maintained the competition from wireless, Internet and cable telephone companies would be enough to keep prices down. Never mind that the vast majority of Californians still use ordinary land lines provided by AT&T and Verizon.The bottom line, termed-out Democratic state Sen. Deborah Ortiz of Sacramento told a reporter, is that, I don’t know that I can point to one pro-consumer bill that has made it through and been signed by the governorThe prospect of this continuing was furthered the other day, when Schwarzenegger named lobbyist Chris Kahn his legislative affairs secretary, responsible for helping shape the hundreds of bills that land on the governor’s desk each year. Kahn moved over from a Sacramento firm that has represented oil and gas producer Aera Energy, the Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Blue Cross, the California Business Roundtable and Verizon Corp., among other big business interests. How likely is he to suddenly become a consumer advocate?Even when Schwarzenegger tries to appear tough, a closer look shows its not very tough. One example came when his Department of Managed Health Care fined Blue Cross $200,000 for canceling a woman’s medical policy because she had not disclosed she’d had corrective surgery 23 years earlier. The department said it was investigating almost two-dozen similar complaints.This is a clarion call … that my administration will not tolerate violation of state laws intended to protect our HMO patients, Schwarzenegger said.In fact, it was the reverse, amounting to an invitation for insurance companies to continue their use-it-and-lose it practices, consumer advocates replied. In a day when a single operation can cost $50,000 or more, They are making so much money off these rescissions that $200,000 is just a small cost of doing business, said Jerry Flanagan of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.It adds up to a steady pattern of favoring business profits over anything else, a pattern that Schwarzenegger will now have little or no motivation to alter in the slightest.Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.
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