THE 1996 California budget has been an albatross that Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Pete Wilson can't seem to shake.
He and California's legislators have wrangled over tax cuts and welfare trims so long that the $57 billion budget is a month past the state's constitutionally mandated deadline. At this writing, legislators appear close to an agreement but the delay has distracted Governor Wilson from the campaign trail. It has also hurt his image as an effective leader.
While other Republican candidates have been shaking hands in New Hampshire and tromping through Iowa cornfields, Wilson has been bound to Sacramento. Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with supposedly no presidential aspirations, has been getting more exposure lately in key primary states.
And instead of basking in his victory two weeks ago when the University of California's Board of Regents voted to end affirmative action in admission and hiring, Wilson beat a hasty retreat back to Sacramento.
''The longer this goes on,'' says Sherry Jeffe, political science professor at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif., ''the longer this hurts Wilson. The sooner they get the budget passed, the better. Period.''
But the delay is bruising to Wilson not only because it keeps him tied up. It also undermines his claim to be a ''can-do'' leader.
''He's running as an effective governor,'' says California political consultant Larry Berg. ''If he's such an effective governor, why has he never, with one exception..., passed a budget on time?''
Some concessions Wilson has made during the budget process also erode his image as a tight fiscal manager. For example, in reaching a budget compromise with the state Senate, Wilson sacrificed a promised tax cut. That will hurt him in the New Hampshire primary, Ms. Jeffe warns.
''New Hampshire is terribly suspect of him because of his '91 tax hike,'' she says. For Wilson to win in the first presidential primary, New Hampshirites ''want to see results. They want to know that there was a tax cut, and that he did it.'' Now, they won't.
Approved by the Senate on July 29, the budget has been stalled in the lower house by Democrats urging aid for the financially drained Los Angeles County and protesting Wilson's welfare cuts. Some Republicans are also balking because they don't think the state should fund abortions.
But many of the Republicans voting against the budget because of an anti-abortion ideology have backed down. For Wilson, one of two Republican primary candidates who are pro-choice, that was a major coup. The less he dwells on the abortion issue, the better. Some observers surmise that Wilson has molded his campaign platform - reforming welfare, cracking down on crime, up-ending affirmative action, and ousting illegal immigrants - around deemphasizing his abortion stance, which is unpopular with conservative Republicans.
THOUGH the budget is long overdue and compromised, Wilson may be able to portray it in a positive light - once it passes.
The plan is almost a blueprint of Wilson values: Pay for prisoners, but not the poor. The proposed budget allocates more money for prisons - a total of $3.6 billion. And the Department of Health and Welfare's allocation would drop from $13.9 billion to $13.4 billion. The budget calls for a $1 billion increase in spending on education and will not raise state university and college tuitions.
These values are in step with California voters, says Mark Di Camillo, director of the San Francisco-based Field Poll. Concern over education and crime are at the top of voters' agendas.
The remaining obstacle to passing the budget is aid to Los Angeles and Orange counties. Legislators from the two counties - one $1.2 billion short of meeting its budget and the other bankrupt - are stubbornly vying for emergency funding to keep public services running.
Still, others think Wilson will be able to ride out this storm. ''He's a very savvy politician,'' says University of Southern California political scientist H. Eric Schock. ''He's shrewd enough to capitalize [on the state budget] for his own agenda,'' he says.