California governor is stubborn or resolute, depending on viewer
Los Angeles — California's amiable, yet unflinching, governor, George Deukmejian, has wrestled a state deficit of Herculean proportions into the black, just as he said he would.
He did it by drawing a hard line and not crossing it.
Not a political animal, by all accounts, Mr. Deukmejian has little taste for back-room bargainmaking and horse-trading. He is stubborn or resolute, according to one's viewpoint - either way, an immovable object. And on the big battle of his first year in office, he has triumphed.
Very little backslapping was done in the process.
The pattern was set early. At a major meeting, the governor sat mostly silent behind his desk, letting his aides present his plan for the California budget.
After half an hour, the Democrats in the office grew restless, beginning to conclude they had been seated for a briefing, rather than invited to a parley. State Sen. Alfred Alquist, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, grew so frustrated he stood up and walked out.
That was last January, Deukmejian's first month in office. And that is about how feelings have run ever since between the Republican governor and the Democratic Legislature.
But the soft-spoken governor has, by and large, had his way.
He has drawn a firestorm of epithets in the process. Embittered Democrats in the Legislature call him ideologue, intransigent, arrogant, high-handed, even contemptuous. He has them wistfully singing the praises of his Republican predecessor, Ronald Reagan, by comparison.
''I've never seen an administration come to a quicker impasse with the Legislature than this one,'' says a longtime lobbyist for private industry. ''Nobody won. Everything came to a grinding halt.''
''It's been a rough year for everybody,'' says Margaret Herman, Sacramento lobbyist for the League of Women Voters.
The governor himself - stolid, unflappable - takes it all as a matter of course.
''First, I don't agree that I am stubborn, but if that's the worst that they can say about me, that's not bad,'' he says, adding: ''I don't know what they expected us to do other than to try to achieve what we said we were going to do during the campaign.''
The controversy is natural, he explains in his measured tone. It's the results that count. ''And I would say that even some of our critics probably grudgingly admire the fact that we were able to solve the major fiscal problem that the state confronted, probably the most severe financial problem . . . maybe since World War II . . . without digging deeper into the pockets of the taxpayer.''
California came within hours of insolvency last spring. The state had already printed IOUs to send to employees instead of paychecks, when the Legislature agreed to the governor's financing plan.
Fending off all challengers, he held a hard line against spending, hiring, and adding new taxes. Now the state is paying off a $1.5 billion deficit inherited from last year and is expected to finish this fiscal year in the black.
Governor Deukmejian speaks with the pride of accomplishment. ''For the first time in five years in this state we're going to be living within our means,'' he says. ''For the first time in many, many years - eight years, I guess - the size of government has not increased.''
His only frustration, he says now, was that it all had to be so hard-fought. ''We achieved virtually everything we set out to achieve. I guess the frustrating part was that some people made it extremely difficult to do that.''
California Democrats, Deukmejian explains, had grown accustomed to the loose rule of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. Coping with a goal-oriented Republican in the governor's office has been a hard adjustment for them. Deukmejian's regret is that they couldn't ''appreciate or realize that we were going to do what we said we were going to do.''
The Democrats themselves say they had much more to adjust to than just a new party in the state's executive suite. They found the Deukmejian strategy infuriating. And that, they say, is why the governor didn't get much of what he wanted apart from the budget - and won't.
The governor has not been utterly unbending. He did, in fact, achieve compromise with the Legislature on education reform, prison building, and more. Yet other battles still stand at an impasse, such as Deukmejian's resolve to levy fees on community college students (who now attend classes without charge) and to cut welfare fraud and waste.
The governor has a strategic lever on the state budget that a US president doesn't have. Rather than accepting or rejecting a whole budget intact, the governor can veto budget items one at a time, fine-tuning mostly acceptable budgets into even more acceptable ones. The Democrats in the Legislature don't have a strong enough majority to override his veto.
This edge helped Deukmejian to hold the line at $22 billion as a budget ceiling, and to veto any tax increases.
A chief Deukmejian adversary through all this, David Roberti, president pro tem of the state Senate, calls the Deukmejian hard line rigid beyond reason and Deukmejian's disdain of tax increases sleight of hand.
The state has actually levied $819 million in new taxes since Deukmejian took office, Senator Roberti asserts, through measures Deukmejian has called ''closing loopholes.'' These taxes/tightened loopholes are accelerated property tax assessments, reduced energy conservation credits for homeowners, a change in tax brackets, altered vehicle license fees, and a swarm of other such moves.
Mr. Roberti sees this as a ''Mickey Mouse pasting and stapling to avoid the appearance of raising taxes.''
Deukmejian has left lawmakers like Roberti smarting, so much so that most lobbyists foresee long-term conflict and impasse throughout the rest of the governor's term.
The governor has prevailed so far as a naysayer, says Senator Alquist. But when he wants to get some of his own programs passed, he will have a much tougher battle. ''I can assure you he will,'' says Alquist.
''The funny thing is,'' a private lobbyist says, ''that I think most legislators were prepared to like him'' - after the aloof Jerry Brown.
Margaret Herman was surprised by this, too. ''I expected that Governor Deukmejian, having been a legislator himself, would have a better sense of compromise, would know that everything that comes out of the Legislature is compromise.
Governor Deukmejian, a conservative whose integrity has never been questioned , is typically described as a true believer. ''So much so,'' says Roberti, ''that I don't think he understands how we Democrats got elected or where the 50 percent who voted against him came from.''
''He acts like a GOP state chairman,'' he adds. ''He regards those who don't share his philosophy as the enemy, in a real, visceral sense.''
No one could call Deukmejian a novice in the ways of legislative politics. He spent 16 years in the Legislature, mostly in the Senate, and four years as attorney general.
His reputation in the Legislature, though, was as a friendly loner, a lawmaker who sponsored volumes of anticrime laws but kept aloof from the push and pull of winning votes.
''In some ways, he's 20 times more rational than Jerry Brown,'' one lobbyist says. ''He's very clear, very decisive . . . in some ways too clear'' in an ideological way.
He is drafting legislation now to split the state Supreme Court into civil and criminal branches, which would also cut the influence of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, a Brown appointee who has long offended Deukmejian's sense of justice.
At the same time he has proposed creating a nonpartisan commission of judges to draw legislative districts, a task that now falls to the Legislature - hence to the Democrats. Deukmejian hopes such a panel can be set up before the 1986 election.
In case this idea doesn't get very far in the Legislature, Deukmejian is already preparing to take it directly to the public as a ballot initiative.