Pete Wilson: California's Comeback Kid?

Governor banks on state's recovering economy to revive his popularity

WHEN he delivers the annual State of the State message this evening in Sacramento, Gov. Pete Wilson also will be reintroducing himself to the people of California.

The California politician devoted most of last year to a failed campaign for the Republican nomination for president. The run followed a triumph over low ratings that easily won him a second term as governor. But Californians were angered by his bid for higher office, seeing it as a betrayal of a pledge to serve out his term, and his popularity is down again.

"After his disastrous presidential run and his loss of credibility with voters here, Pete Wilson needs - and he knows he needs - to resurrect himself," says Assemblyman Byron Sher, a northern California Democrat. "And the best way to do so is by showing he cares about California issues and by performing as governor."

For the first time since early in his first term, Governor Wilson has favorable conditions to try to make a positive mark for himself. The deep recession in California, America's largest state economy, with an economic output of $850 billion a year, has finally come to an end. The strong recovery has filled state coffers, after years of deficit, with an unanticipated surplus. And the Republican Party has won effective control of the Assembly, the lower house of the state Legislature, for the first time in 25 years.

But it still may be difficult sledding for the Republican governor. The economic comeback remains tenuous, with unemployment well above the national average. A recent poll taken by California's Field Institute, shows that Californians remain deeply pessimistic about the future, with 6 out of 10 residents believing the state is on the wrong track. And the California Legislature is so sharply divided along ideological lines that, with the Democrats controlling the Senate, little is expected to get done this year.

Still, Wilson is expected to strike a positive note, proposing a slate of initiatives reminiscent of when he took office in 1991, before the recession hit. The proposals will "strike a conservative chord, and seem innovative and forward-looking," says ex-GOP Assembly leader Robert Naylor.

The agenda includes: another attempt to push a corporate and individual income tax cut; deregulation to stimulate business, including lifting some environmental controls; tort reform; privatization of some government services; and continued stress on anticrime measures, particularly of juvenile violence and gangs. Efforts to curb teen pregnancy, welfare reform, and the old Wilson themes of halting illegal immigration and ending affirmative action will also be on the policy list, says former Wilson press secretary Dan Schnur.

A further indication of where Wilson hopes to lead the state will come Wednesday when he presents his budget for the coming fiscal year. He tried to meet criticism of past spending cuts by announcing last week that a small part of the estimated $1 billion budget surplus will hold off planned increases in student fees at California's public universities. State officials, anticipating cuts in federal support for welfare and medical-insurance programs, are concerned the budget will include reductions in social programs. Spending for prisons and infrastructure is likely to rise.

The chances of passing this agenda rose last week when the Republicans took control of the Assembly. Though they won a slim majority in the 1994 elections, the skilled maneuvering of long-time Democratic Speaker Willie Brown kept them from electing their own Speaker and commanding the Assembly's operations.

But Mr. Brown's departure to become mayor of San Francisco and Wilson's behind-the-scenes lobbying finally resulted in enough Republican unity to elect conservative Orange County Assemblyman Curt Pringle as Speaker. The Republicans also pushed through rules changes placing a great deal of the Speaker's powers in the hands of the Republican-controlled Rules Committee.

THE Assembly Republicans resemble the national GOP freshmen in tone and agenda. Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D) predicts the coming session "will be every bit as contentious as the last one because of the profound ideological contention between the two groups here."

The Democrats retain control of the Senate, under the strong leadership of Sen. Bill Lockyer, who has vowed to battle the conservative GOP agenda at every turn.

"If the extremists in the Assembly send us their legislation to ruin the environment, to allow big corporations to injure people without being held accountable, to harm education, to limit women's rights, the moderates in the Senate will represent the mainstream views of the people of California and defeat them," Lockyer said last week.

On top of that, this is an election year, and one with added distractions for California legislators. The primary vote for the Assembly and Senate races was moved up to March 26, along with the presidential primary, which means that campaigning is already intensely under way. And with the implementation of term limits, more than a quarter of the seats are now open, with no incumbent running.

"More than any legislative session in a long time, it will be very difficult to get the attention of even a majority of the legislators on serious policy matters," says Mr. Naylor. "I don't see much getting done this year."

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