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May 05, 2004 - 01:00 AM
by Jim Evans, Bee Staff Writer
State chamber looks revitalizedBusiness leaders and supporters gathered Tuesday at the California Chamber of Commerce's annual legislative conference and celebrated a series of victories this year as a sign of momentum for the chamber's policy agenda.
"The chamber seems to have gained new life," said former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who added in a speech that the business organization has played a key role in shaping policy this year.
Earlier this year, chamber officials were preparing for the possibility of at least four major business-related measures on the November ballot. In recent months, however, two of those have been withdrawn.
One contained Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to overhaul workers' compensation, which was dropped when lawmakers passed a compromise agreement last month. The chamber played a major role in sponsoring the initiative, which Schwarzenegger used to threaten lawmakers, saying that he would go to voters if they failed to pass a plan.
The other was a proposal by the California Teachers Association and film director Rob Reiner that would have raised taxes on commercial property to help pay for schools. The sponsors said it was withdrawn because public opinion this year was sharply against tax increases.
The chamber also scored another victory this spring when it led the fight to defeat Proposition 56 on the March ballot. The measure, backed by labor unions, would have lowered the legislative threshold to raise taxes from two-thirds vote to 55 percent vote.
Chamber President Allan Zaremberg said the organization's recent success has come because businesses felt "the pendulum had swung too far" against them. It was a key reason that the organization backed Schwarzenegger in October's historic recall election - the first time in its history that the chamber had endorsed a candidate for governor.
"They had to be aggressive and go beyond the usual strategies," Zaremberg said.
And the chamber isn't done. Zaremberg said the organization is now turning its sights to two ballot measures it is sponsoring in November. One would repeal SB 2, the 2003 bill that requires businesses with more than 20 employees to provide medical insurance for workers. Another, which is in the signature-verification stage, would make it harder for individuals, claiming unfair business practices, to sue companies.
The chamber is also fighting an initiative that would tax Californians earning more than $1 million a year to fund mental health services and another one - still pending signature verification - that would tax phone bills to raise money for emergency and medical services.
Officials said the chamber, tired of playing defense against a Democratic governor and Legislature, has used the election of Schwarzenegger to go on the offensive.
Before Schwarzenegger, the chamber had to be "reactive," in fighting Democratic lawmakers' policies, said Dan Lungren, former Republican attorney general and now a candidate for Congress. "They have a chance now to be proactive in pursuing (their) agenda," he added.
Opponents of the Schwarzenegger administration acknowledge that, so far, the melding of the Schwarzenegger and chamber messages has worked because Democrats fear Schwarzenegger's popularity will carry the day before the voters.
"Arnold is the gun that the chamber has put to the heads in the Legislature to get its way," said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "But you can only make big business sound like populism for so long."
Consumer activist Court said the chamber's power will be tested in the November elections. Court said it's not clear that Schwarzenegger will endorse or campaign for either of the chamber's two ballot measures.
A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said the governor has not taken a position on the November measures.
The Bee's Jim Evans can be reached at (916) 321-1215 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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