WITH his signature barely dry on one of the most controversial state budgets in American history - 64 days late with $10.7 billion in cuts - Gov. Pete Wilson can be found alone in his inner statehouse office, his face reflecting both relief and consternation.
Outside, the halls are emptied of the legislators who finally passed a $57.4 billion state budget on Sept. 2 that conforms to Governor Wilson's demand for no new taxes and no deficit spending.
"If their purpose was to produce political injury to me, I think they succeeded," Wilson says, referring to what he calls the "conscious game plan" of state Assembly Democrats to stall the budget as long as possible.
Wilson says their rationale was to gain positive "rub-off for Democrats in legislative races this fall...." It was, he argues, "an unconscionably cynical ploy, and an inexcusable exploitation of the most vulnerable Californians who depend on the state for a check or services."
The Assembly Democrats, led by longtime Speaker Willie Brown, have a long list of grievances against Wilson. During his campaign for governor, Wilson supported a term-limit ballot initiative that will oust every incumbent legislator by 1996. The governor also helped orchestrate a court-ordered redistricting that left many Democrats having to woo new constituencies because new district lines are more favorable to Republicans.
"Add these to Wilson's initial relationship with a Democratic-controlled Legislature that was not good from the beginning, and there was virtual assurance that the Democrats would make the budget battle bitter," says Alan Heslop, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
Leaning forward in a burgundy leather chair in his inner chamber, Wilson on Thursday sorted through a stack of newspaper clippings that declare him a narrow "winner" in the budget battle, because the Legislature acceded to his demand to cut state spending by roughly 5.8 percent next year.
But with his approval rating at an all-time low of 20 percent, Wilson is now taking the public-relations offensive to both clarify his stand during the recent stalemate, and to minimize political damage.
"To increase taxes in what is already a high tax state is to simply invite ... a further deterioration of the job climate," he says.
"There is a failure by many here in the capital to grasp the connection between [a budget and] a really healthy economy that produces revenues at existing tax rates without tax increases, by increasing employment and increasing earnings."
Several political pundits say the recent budget fiasco has prepared voters to vote for an initiative Wilson is sponsoring this fall. Under Proposition 165, if the legislators fail to meet constitutional deadlines for the budget - as they have for 17 of the last 21 years - legal mechanisms kick in to dock legislators' pay and to grant the governor additional power to bring spending into line with revenues. Also, if revenues drop 3 percent below expectation during any quarter, the governor will have the po wer to trim spending.
"Anyone who watched this hideously prolonged process and the circumstances that precipitated it will vote for [Prop. 165] in a minute," Wilson says, "because it will prevent its ever happening again."
Wilson has been criticized in editorials, political cartoons, and even on Jay Leno's "The Tonight Show" because the new budget is perceived to be hard on education. He lashes out at those critics.
"I don't think, frankly, that there is any way [educators] can complain," says Wilson, "when [we] have provided the same level of funding [as the current year] and fully covered enrollment growth in a year that is so markedly austere ... that every other function of government has been cut back without exception...."
A special session of the Legislature has been called for tomorrow by Speaker Brown and Senate president pro tem David Roberti to resolve a dispute over $520 million for school districts allegedly struck from the budget by Wilson. The governor claims the problem is a routine oversight.
"Every budget requires cleanup legislation to fix legislative glitches," says Wilson. "What is true is that we've set aside that $520 million until some necessary and routine legislation is passed, to cure unintended legislative omissions."
Now that the Legislature has adjourned, Wilson must decide whether to sign or veto a stack of no fewer than 1,100 bills passed in the last week of the session.
"Few if any of these bills portend any major legislative reform.... It has been a very disappointing session," Wilson says.
Several independent analysts agree with that observation. "The year began with the prolonged post mortem about redistricting and moved rapidly into name-calling over the budget," Dr. Heslop says. "All of the important issues were pushed to the back burner waiting for this fall's elections."
Chief among Wilson's concerns in coming months will be reforming a workmen's compensation system he calls a "national disgrace" and reducing the state government burden on business. But the political future of Pete Wilson, analysts say, rests with the prospects of an economic turnaround for California.