California Establishes Institute to Solidify National Clout

MEMBERS of the California congressional delegation call it the ABC syndrome - Anywhere But California. It refers to resentment on Capitol Hill over the state's size and influence. Yet girth doesn't always beget clout. The often fractious California delegation is still smarting over the state's loss of an earthquake research center to Buffalo, N.Y. - considered the equivalent here of Los Angeles beating out Buffalo for a snow removal contract.

To help foster unity within the ranks, and blunt hostility from without, the state's power brokers are banding together to more vigorously pitch California's interests in Washington, D.C.

The aim: to woo more federal dollars westward.

``This is not a pork-barrel institute,'' says Rep. Don Edwards (D), dean of the California congressional delegation. ``This is the first time in California history that Democrats and Republicans are working hand-in-hand on a major initiative for the state.''

The formation of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research is just the latest sign that the Golden State cannot rely on sun and size alone to retain its standing in a nation of competitive states.

In the corporate arena, California has witnessed a disturbing defection of companies to other regions - particularly aerospace firms from southern California.

The builders of planes and satellites and radar that congregated here before and after World War II, helping to create a comfortable middle-class culture, have been relocating to Georgia, South Carolina, and Utah.

The departures have been spurred in part by high living and labor costs, traffic, smog, and environmental rules. But other states have also been wooing California firms with P. T. Barnum zeal. The problem has become serious enough that Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has formed a task force to look into the defections, and perhaps to fight back. Several cities are following a similar course.

Now the state is trying to fashion a more aggressive approach in Congress. It wouldn't seem that such a step would be necessary. With 47 members in the delegation, soon to be 54 after redistricting, California has by far the biggest presence in Washington. Its members chair 27 committees or subcommittees.

Yet the state has never been able to harvest federal contracts as if they were avocados. This was evident in 1988 when California didn't even make it among the finalists for the US Department of Energy's superconducting supercollider, even though a Californian inhabited the White House and another headed DOE. The project went to Texas.

Similarly, despite having Silicon Valley, the state lost out to Texas in the bidding for Sematech, a federally subsidized venture to revitalize the computer chip industry.

The Pentagon's recent awarding of a contract for a new jet fighter to Lockheed, which will build it in Georgia, instead of to California-based Northrop Corporation, also didn't go overlooked.

``The delegation is feeling as if it hasn't taken advantage of its numbers or the strategic position of individual members,'' says Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.

While many factors go into determining who wins federal plums, California lawmakers are painfully aware of their lack of unity on many issues. Ideological diversity is one barrier: Members range from Rep. Ron Dellums, a liberal Berkeley Democrat, to Reps. Robert Dornan and William Dannemeyer, conservative Orange County Republicans.

The state, which for years has had a GOP chief executive and Democratic-controlled legislature, also has often spoken with a split voice. Moreover, cities and counties, as well as myriad interest groups in the state, rarely share the same concerns.

``It is not surprising that you don't have a unified voice out of California,'' says Eugene Lee, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

The federal policy institute, whose board met for the first time last month, has the backing of Governor Wilson, academia, and business and labor groups. It is also supported by the delegation, with the exception of a few Republicans who worry about perpetuating the power of the Democratic majority.

Funded by a number of state industries, the group will marshal facts and figures and coordinate efforts in pursuing federal programs. It will also try to find common ground - when possible - on issues vital to the state.

Illinois and Texas have similar bipartisan lobbying groups in Washington. There is a Sun Belt Institute. The grandfather of them all, the Northeast-Midwest Institute, representing 18 states, has a staff of 15 and a $1.3 million budget.

While the California Institute will be far smaller, its mere formation is the most telling statement of all.

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