It took someone as improbable as Santa Barbara’s Hot Dog Man, Bill Connell, to achieve the impossible in Sacramento. At a time when the governor and the Legislature have been pathologically deadlocked over major spending bills, water policy reform, and prison safety issues, Bill Connell managed to win unanimous support for a bill that restored an ancient and archaic tax break designed to help military veterans who make their livings as itinerant vendors.
Connell’s path was far from easy, however. For the past 17 years, the former pugilist and Vietnam-era vet has been taking his case to the State Franchise Board and any legislative committee that would give him the time of day. To all outward appearances, Connell’s was a lost cause, and he was a colorful, scrappy Don Quixote forever tilting at the impenetrable windmill of an indifferent state bureaucracy. But in the midst of the worst budget crisis in state history, Connell managed to win approval to have the tax break restored, amazingly winning unanimous votes in both the Assembly and the Senate.
For a period, it appeared that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger might veto the measure as part of his showdown with the Legislature. The governor had threatened to veto any and all legislation that came before him unless the legislators could break their stalemate over water and prison reform. Although no such breakthrough has taken place, water talks between the warring factions managed to make enough incremental progress for the governor to relent on his threat.
To win passage, Connell’s bill was trimmed down to bare bones and given a two-year sunset clause to determine its true fiscal impact on state coffers. But for the time being, state bean counters estimate this tax break for itinerant vendors will cost about $25,000 in potential revenue. Connell, however, estimates that it will make a huge difference in the lives of untold veterans like himself, who might otherwise wind up on welfare.
To celebrate his victory, Connell held a free hot dog party at his Carpinteria Surf Dog stand Thursday morning, at which State Senator Jeff Denham, chair of the Senate Affairs Committee, said a few choice words exclaiming over Connell’s tenacity, endurance, and restraint. A gregarious and friendly public figure, Connell is also known to have a short fuse and a sharp tongue. But throughout his legislative ordeal, Connell was never asked to leave an official proceeding.
Although other organizations are credited for lobbying on behalf of the bill, staff members of the Veterans Affairs Committee are quick to acknowledge the measure would have gone nowhere without Connell’s persistence and determination. In Sacramento, Connell is now well known throughout the halls of power as “The Hot Dog Man.” As compelling as it was unlikely, Connell’s victory managed to bring together political arch rivals Pedro Nava and Salud Carbajal – State Assemblymember and 1st District county supervisor, respectively – who both showed up to celebrate. Neither betrayed any of the personal and political animus they feel for each other. Carbajal had submitted letters on Connell’s behalf over the years, and Nava’s staff had worked closely with Connell as well.
Some of Connell’s friends wonder what will occupy the Hot Dog Man’s focus and energies now that his legislative quest is complete. But for Connell, it’s the start of a brand new chapter. Now, he said, he will petition the state to be paid back the taxes he said he should never have paid in the first place.