Wilson Plays for Long-Term Gain

Budget fight with Legislature is fierce, but the governor's term extends until 1996

LIKE his party's presidential nominee in Houston, Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson is in the fight of his national political life. How he fares in the final rounds of the state's worst budget impasse since the 1920s - with the budget now 54 days overdue - will determine what, if any, future he has in national or state politics, according to several state government watchers.

His approval ratings are at a historic low (20 percent in a recent California Poll). The state economy is in its worst shape since the Great Depression. A litany of troubles, from drought to earthquakes and riots has exacerbated image problems for businesses, outside investors, tourists, and future residents.

"This is a very dark patch for him, no doubt," says Alan Heslop, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. The current make-or-break issue for Mr. Wilson is how to fill a $10.7 billion gap between anticipated revenues and continuing all state programs at their current levels. Everything from education to cities and towns to Medi-Cal and state-regulated horse racing, is on the line. About two dozen bills are still being considered as part of one budget proposal or another.

Shaking his finger at the "tax and spend" politics of several packages offered by Sacramento's Democratic-controlled Legislature, Wilson has vowed that "here in California there will be no deficit spending.... I propose to fight it out on this line even if it takes all summer.... We will not repeat the sins of Washington in Sacramento."

Though the standoff with legislators has hurt Wilson in the polls, it may be hurting state senators and assemblymen worse. The same California Poll puts voter approval ratings for the Legislature at 9 percent.

"It is hard for me to believe that any member of government will look good when this is over," notes Mervin Field, director of the California Poll. The delay has forced the state to pay government workers nearly $3 billion in IOUs for the first time ever. The IOUs have cost $6.7 million in interest, thrown several city and educational programs into limbo, and upset banking procedures.

"After all this, we'll have Stage 2, in which the pain of the eventual cuts come," says Field.

Wilson is said to be sticking to his hard line because he is relatively immune to what voters can do to legislators in November. Wilson is not up for reelection until 1996. Several observers have noted that if anti-incumbency fervor ousts Democrats and Republicans in existing proportions (about 3 to 2), the Democrats stand to lose more.

"Wilson is playing for long-term political gain," notes Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "The problem is that if voters perceive that he is holding up the process for that political gain, it will arouse even further hostility." Wilson takes big risk

"Wilson is taking a calculated risk, and if he stumbles it could cost him his second term," says Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "Not to mention a career at the national level."

But Dr. Heslop sees the current crisis as opportunity.

"Wilson's hard line could bring the office some of the dignity it lacked under previous administrations," Heslop says. Noting that Wilson snubbed his nose at both Assembly and Senate plans for state redistricting in 1991 - both plans maintained a pro-Democrat status quo - Heslop says such hardball tactics forced the issue into the Supreme Court. "He risked his alliances for a court procedure that may not have helped Republicans in the redistricting process," says Heslop. But it did.

Noting the more equitable districts that came out of the court plan, Heslop says, "Wilson's hard-line gamble paid off tremendously. And it just might again." Wilson stayed home

Wilson's latest bevy of strong words came in a special address last week to the GOP convention via remote television hookup. Staying away from the national convention to contend with budget matters, Wilson passed up the opportunity to give the convention's designated "Big Tent" speech from the podium.

Like the national GOP, which did Congress-bashing throughout its national convention to pin whatever possible blame for the economic recession on Democrats, Wilson called himself a "compassionate conservative" who is "tight with tax dollars." And he cited his familiar territory of preventive government, such as prenatal care.

Such preventive measures, added up across education, health, and welfare, are part of Wilson's long-term plan to pare back the state's $57 billion budget, the largest in American history. Wilson and Assembly Republicans have been seeking a permanent 4.5 percent cut in welfare that Democrats would like to be temporary.

Republicans have also been pushing for removal of restrictions the state places on the way county governments can spend money.

At press time, a bipartisan compromise passed the Senate, allowing counties to set welfare grants for single men at a level below what the state pays to poor families with children.

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