Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Legislators, lobbyists? This time it's hard to tell

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

The California Legislature has decreed that it is within its rights to approve legislation that specifically targets one particular business.

No matter your political persuasion, this ought to be of concern.

In party-line votes, the Democratic-controlled Senate approved the legislation Monday, after the Assembly inserted the amendment into the bill and approved it late last week. Gov. Jerry Brown probably will sign it.

The business in question is the Honda Center, the arena in Anaheim where the Ducks hockey team plays. Orange County billionaire Henry Samueli, a regular donor to Republican politicians and an occasional donor to Democrats, owns the National Hockey League franchise and operates the arena.

Earlier this year, Samueli decided to replace Aramark, a Philadelphia-based conglomerate that provided food service at the area, with an in-house concession operation. That's his right, or ought to be.

By taking the action, however, Samueli ran afoul of Unite Here, the union that represents Aramark's employees in Orange County and is a loyal part of the Democrats' labor base. Unite Here's lobbyists went to work in the Capitol defending union jobs. That's what they're supposed to do.

The issue surfaced in May when Assemblyman Tom Daly, a Democrat and former Anaheim mayor, tried to block the Honda Center from hiring workers to replace Aramark employees and collecting state enterprise-zone tax credits for the new hires.

After Honda Center operators responded to Daly by saying they would forgo seeking the tax credits, Assembly Democrats responded by inserting two paragraphs into Senate Bill 71, a 100-page tome that includes scores of provisions implementing many aspects of the new state budget.

The language is something to behold.

California has something called the Displaced Janitor Opportunity Act, a remnant of Gray Davis' tenure as governor. The janitor act protects unionized cleaning services by requiring that building owners who replace janitorial services retain the janitors themselves for at least 60 days.

SB 71 seeks to extend that act to apply to "every contractor, as defined, that provides food and beverage services at a publicly owned entertainment venue." The language would expire Dec. 31, 2014, ensuring that the provision applies to Honda Center and no other California arena.

In the late 1990s, there was an attempt to use a budget trailer bill to target a single company that was involved in a union dispute. But propriety prevailed, and the language never became public. Today's Legislature seems unable to stop itself from doing its benefactors' bidding.

Given their diminished state, Republicans were powerless to stop the legislation. Without sufficient votes or skills to block Democrats, they have become irrelevant to budget discussions.

"The state is big-footing a private employer," said Assemblyman Don Wagner, a Republican whose district includes the Honda Center. "At the end of the day, the Honda Center is going to have to roll over and take what the Legislature dishes out."

The Honda Center language is not like the annual bills aimed at nonunion retail giant Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart bills generally are subjected to committee hearings, unlike the final language aimed at the Honda Center.

"We were never given any type of notification," said Tim Ryan, president of Anaheim Arena Management, which oversees the Honda Center. "For us to get blindsided was quite shocking."

Adding to the deviousness of it all, the language was inserted in the same bill that was amended last week to require local governments to adhere to the California Public Records Act – something most news organizations, including this one, had advocated.

Jack Gribbon, a lobbyist and organizer for Unite Here, told me Honda Center operators still could capitalize on enterprise-zone tax credits of as much as $37,000 for each new hire. He also says the Honda Center will hire part-time workers, thereby skirting Affordable Care Act requirements that employers provide health care insurance.

"This is about ripping off the taxpayers," Gribbon said. "This is about abuse of employees."

Ryan said he has no intention of grabbing tax breaks or not providing benefits. Rather, the goal is simple: to improve quality and service. He noted that many Aramark employees have applied for some of the 700 concession jobs. He said the workers could form a new union if they want, though their pay will be equal to or more than their current wage.

Samueli is doing what he thinks is best for his business, as is his right. Labor lobbyists are doing what they're supposed to do – protect union jobs. Legislators who voted for the bill, however, have a misplaced sense of their role.

In this instance, lawmakers seem to have forgotten that they are supposed to temper their benefactors' wishes. Instead, they carried out their patrons' wishes, making it difficult to distinguish between legislators and favored lobbyists.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/morain.