Pete Wilson Sets a Good Course

IN his inaugural address last week, California's new governor, Republican Pete Wilson, made an expansive promise. California, he said, would provide free prenatal care for every mother in the state. He also vowed to develop programs to prevent drug abuse, gang violence, learning disorders, and school dropouts. ``How much better to provide prenatal care to assure 50 or 60 healthy newborns than to pay for neonatal care for only one unhealthy baby,'' Gov. Wilson stated. ``How much better to prevent learning disorders, than to engage in compensatory education. ... How much better to prevent crime, than to punish it.''

At a time when California faces its worst financial crisis ever, with a $1.5 billion deficit for the current fiscal year, Wilson's plan to introduce an era of ``preventive government'' is a brave move. It could also be a practical one. Research by the Children's Defense Fund shows that every dollar spent on prenatal care saves $3 in medical costs later. And every dollar invested in quality preschool education returns $4.75 because of lower costs of special education, public assistance, and crime.

What Wilson calls ``a mode of anticipation and prevention'' represents a refreshing change from the mend-and-patch approach that often forces legislatures to make hasty and costly decisions. Inaugural rhetoric is one thing, of course. Fiscal reality is another, especially in a time of red ink and austerity.

But if state lawmakers can succeed in implementing ``preventive government,'' they will define for all states the initiative Wilson has set for his own: ``The choice California must make is to give increasing attention and resources to the conditions that shape our children's lives and California's future.''

Governor Wilson has outlined an enlightened form of government, showing respect for his constituents. His ideal is worth applauding, and his model worth watching.

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