Bioterror Inc.

Paranoia express: It was with irregular heart palpitations that Bites met the news that UC Davis plans to ask the feds for $150 million to build a National Biocontainment Laboratory on its campus, so as to research the world’s nastiest, most deadly diseases: anthrax, hantavirus, Ebola and the West Nile Virus.

The 250,000-square-foot Biosafety Level 4 facility would look like that “box within a box” building we saw Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey parading through in their bright orange spacesuits in Outbreak. Scientists say the proposed UCD shop would keep the most stringent of containment standards known to humankind. One would hope.

Dr. Fred Murphy, a professor of virology at UCD and the go-to guy on the National Institute of Health application, said last week that the facility had a good chance of acceptance and that it would not pose a local health hazard. Hmmm. There are only three such labs in the country now, all east of Texas, a geographical fact that bugs Homeland Defense types who feel that the West Coast might not be fully prepared to handle a Big Event, like the use of a biological weapon by terrorists.

Typically content to reprint New York Times editorials in its opinion space, the Davis Enterprise wrote a rare, immediate and blanket endorsement of the bioproject. (Davis is a company town, and the folks at the company newspaper know when it’s time to salute!) But Bites remains jittery. An Outbreak lab seems somehow likely to hasten an actual outbreak, not to mention make Sacramento a new target for terrorists.

Postcard from Maui: The handful of legislators heading off to a conference sponsored by a politically muscular prison-guards union may have been a little red-faced when the papers ran news of their trip, held the weekend before the start of the legislators’ special budget session. But they must have been extra chagrined when they bumped into LA Times capital reporter Nancy Vogel at the Sheraton Maui resort.

Vogel told Bites she made the tropical trip at her editor’s request. At the resort, she staked out the restaurant and waited for unsuspecting legislators to get their morning coffee or join the buffet line.

“Yeah, they were surprised. They were shocked,” Vogel said. “Liz Figueroa asked me if I brought a photographer.” Actually, the photog couldn’t make it, but Vogel got plenty of color for a Monday story about how lawmakers—including legislative leaders Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte and Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox—said aloha to the all-powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association while the Capitol was up to its rotunda in red ink. (Senate President John Burton stayed here to work.) Good-government types, of course, griped that the vacation was a chance for the guard union to buy influence with legislators, who presumably will look hard next year at the fat pay hike guards got this year.

Coincidentally, at the end of last Monday’s legislative session, Cox declared how we “ought to be talking about how we can eliminate overtime in the correctional facilities.” Bites couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been moved by headlines about his Maui mission.

Steel shots: California Republican Party Chairman Shawn Steel horrified fellow elephants last week, when, speaking at the Sacramento Press Club, he pledged to recall any Republican lawmaker who votes for a tax hike. Steel also took shots at GOP nemesis Gerry Parsky, a pal of President Bush. The party board, which includes Cox, Brulte and Parsky, voted unanimously the next day to censure Steel.

But, for the record, state GOP spokeswoman Karen Hanretty said it wasn’t the recall threat or Bushie bashing that earned Steel a rebuke. “He was censured because he was again advocating his own personal opinions as party policy—he’s done so repeatedly—and because he’s advocating a tax increase,” she said.

But Steel won’t need to recall himself. His stint as chairman ends in February.