Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has made the California Chamber of Commerce's "job killer" bill list five years running.
So it was little surprise that the Sacramento Democrat couldn't recall Thursday ever having stood next to chamber President and CEO Allan Zaremberg at a Capitol news conference before.
"I think that was the first time," Steinberg said afterward. "Hopefully it won't be the last."
With one week left in the legislative session, Democrats rolled out a last-minute proposal that requires additional review of new state regulations, backed by the chamber and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association.
The fact that business groups and Democrats are embracing one another in the open may be as important as the bill itself.
The majority party senses an opportunity to gain well-financed business allies over the next year, most notably on a November 2012 ballot package asking voters to raise taxes.
Democrats believe they have more leverage over business groups because Gov. Jerry Brown is in the executive office and they were able to sideline Republicans this year with new majority-vote budget powers.
As California faces a 12 percent unemployment rate, Democrats are trying to act on the jobs front. They also know the chamber is a powerful Capitol player whose support – or even neutrality – can help various efforts in the coming months.
"I think everyone benefits from this," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist and current director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
"The Democrats gain some credibility on job creation issues by getting the chamber to stand with them," Schnur said. "The chamber gets a chance to potentially get some regulation streamlining that their members wanted for a really long time."
Democratic leaders and Zaremberg said Thursday they remain open to working together with labor groups on a tax package for next fall's ballot.
"I have talked to some of the business community about taxes," Steinberg said. "There is a continuing realization that we really need to focus on November 2012. It's revenue, it's job creation. … The key is finding what works."
The Senate leader acknowledged that it might be difficult to find a labor-business tax package that polls well with voters. He said targeted tax hikes fare best at the moment – he prefers higher taxes on the wealthy – but business leaders want broad-based taxes that affect a wide swath of taxpayers, similar to what Brown proposed.
Zaremberg expressed interest but noted that persuading the electorate to pass taxes has become more difficult in the wake of the federal debt negotiations, which further undermined confidence in government.
Thursday's amended legislation, Senate Bill 617, would require state agencies to conduct uniform reviews of new regulations that have at least $50 million in economic impact. Agencies must consider how a regulation affects the environment, jobs and public health, as well as conduct a cost-benefit analysis.
The regulatory process is different from the legislative one. Steinberg's office said agencies submitted 737 regulations or files last year. The Office of Administrative Law is currently reviewing everything from conflict-of-interest codes to guidelines for traffic schools.
Companies for years have criticized California for having an onerous and inconsistent regulatory process across different agencies.
In past years, Republicans have sought business-backed changes through the budget process, using the state's two-thirds vote requirement as negotiating leverage. That was also the case this year, when five Senate Republicans considered placing taxes on the ballot in exchange for a regulatory overhaul, pension cuts and easing environmental rules.
In the end, the Democratic governor and the GOP senators never reached agreement, and the Legislature passed the budget on a majority vote. Since then, Democrats have worked little with Republicans, even on the regulatory issue addressed Thursday. Instead, Democrats reached out to business groups with a proposal more likely to pass muster with labor and environmental groups.
Republicans said Thursday they were interested in SB 617, though they criticized Democrats for rejecting more extensive GOP changes.
"It is nice to see our friends in the majority party finally embrace a watered-down version of reform that Republicans have been advocating for years," Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway said in a statement.
Republicans didn't openly express concern Thursday that their allies stood with Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez. It remains unlikely Democrats will side with business on a regular basis.
Around the same time Democrats held their news conference, the Assembly sent Brown a union-backed bill that would require cities and counties to assess the economic impact of "superstores" like Walmarts. The chamber opposed the measure, Senate Bill 469.
"I think they'll look for opportunities, but at the end of the day, what the business community fears most is a two-thirds majority of Democrats, because that gives them power over taxes and fees," said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist. "There's nothing Democrats can do to mitigate those fears."