California Braces for News of Base Closings

THE possibility that as many as nine military bases may be closing in California is testing whatever chumminess has existed between the Clinton administration and the nation's most populous state.

Almost every week, some state delegation has jetted east to try to convince official Washington that California needs more federal help if it is to pull out of its worst economic slump since the 1930s.

Many people have been heartened by recent White House signals. But a Pentagon proposal this week calling for the closure of as many as 30 major military installations nationwide - nearly one-third of them in California - is not the kind of special treatment state lawmakers have in mind.

While the final recommended closure list is not yet public, and President Clinton is pledging new relief money for affected communities, the possibility of more padlocked shipyards and marine barracks is raising protests from Michigan to Mississippi - though none louder than in California.

The depth of the concern here underscores the lingering anxiety about the state's economy and the sensitivity Mr. Clinton will have to show in dealing with a state that has been an important base of his political support.

"This is the first major test of Clinton's promises to California and his understanding of its problems," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin plans to disclose the list today. It will be sent to the independent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which has until July 1 to submit a list to Clinton.

Members of California's congressional delegation, as well as many state and local officials, are hoping the list is very different from the version that surfaced earlier this week. The delegation has been lobbying the White House, the Pentagon, and anyone who will listen.

The relatively unified California contingent will also be looking to snare as much of the relief and "defense conversion" money as it can that Clinton is expected to release to aid affected workers and communities.

The essence of the protest here is that any large number of new closures would amount to piling on. Seventeen bases have been ordered shut down in the state since 1988 - accounting, according to California lawmakers, for 60 percent of all military and civilian personnel cuts during that time. Gov. Pete Wilson (R) estimates that the proposed nine new closures would cost the state 80,000 jobs and $4.5 billion in lost wages.

"It is just too drastic," says an aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D).

When the latest unemployment figures came out last week, the nation's jobless rate was 7 percent and going down, while California's was 9.8 percent and going up. Restructuring and downsizing in the defense industry, which helped build up California after 1945, has been a major reason for the downturn.

Still, any bases that do end up on the final list would take several years to shut down. The California economy could be in better shape by then. Some of these bases will also undoubtedly be prime sites for development - airports, industrial parks, new colleges - though the transition from swords to plowshares can be a slow and painful one.

"We may be able to absorb the impacts when the economy is better down the road," says David Hensley, a business forecaster at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The base issue surfaces at a time when California lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington have been trying to forge a more-unified front in pursuing the state's interests. The economy is the driving force behind the attempt at amity, but so is a lingering feeling that California has never gotten its fair share from the federal government.

The state's huge but ideologically divergent congressional delegation came together earlier this month - for only the second time in recent years - to meet with Democratic state Treasurer Kathleen Brown. She was in Washington to remind the president of the state's special needs. Clinton has indicated that he considers California's rebound essential to the recovery of the full United States economy, but what that may mean in dollars is yet uncertain.

The president has responded sympathetically, in principle but not yet in number, to Governor Wilson's request for $1.5 billion in reimbursement for health and education services to immigrants.

Also of interest will be what share California might get in any new investment in infrastructure, high technology, and the inner city.

Ultimately, Clinton's standing in the state - now and in 1996 - will ride on how well his overall economic plan does in bringing jobs to California. "The larger issue is what is going to happen to the California economy in general," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

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