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Deukmejian Disguises Reality in California

January 18, 1987|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is director of the State Legislative Leadership Study at the Institute of Politics and Government at USC

In the long-running off-Broadway musical, "The Fantasticks," El Gallo, the Narrator, seduces the ingenue by promising a world of endless dancing, parties and adventure. He leads her first to Venice, where the young girl sees peasants lighting candelabra. Suddenly she sees that it is a man who is burning.

"Keep on dancing," urges El Gallo.

"But he's burning," she cries.

"Just put up the mask," commands El Gallo, "and it's pretty."

Hiding behind her mask, the girl is whisked past other horrors of the world. "Life is a colorful carrousel," El Gallo crows, "reckless and terribly gay!"

The scene enacted on the west steps of the State Capitol last Monday could easily have been a part of El Gallo's itinerary: George Deukmejian, sworn in for his second term as California's governor amid bright colors, patriotic symbols and wholesome high school bands playing military marches. A well-dressed audience applauding the governor's pledge of more jobs, housing, toxics cleanup, senior citizens' and children's opportunities in "the state where America's future begins." All this with "no tax increase on people or businesses."

Through it all, around the capital, wander the homeless and jobless, barely noticed. The mask is on.

George Deukmejian, in both his State of the State address and budget message, is not the first governor to ignore the dark complexities and fiscal realities in favor of simple homilies without solutions. Ronald Reagan offered a mask of rosy boosterism, Edmund G. Brown Jr. a mask of minimalism.

Reagan was more successful than Brown in masking reality from California--or postponing it. Californians like optimism better than pessimism, liked Reagan better than Brown, and saw him, as governor, more credible. Most important, Reagan's rhetoric kept pace with public opinion longer than did Brown's.

In the end, both faced up to reality--Reagan, when he oversaw enactment of the largest tax increase in California's history, Brown when he flip-flopped from opponent to champion of Proposition 13.

Deukmejian has yet to face up; he offers a mask that, strangely, has features of both Reagan and Brown.

After declaring in his State of the State address last week that California "is more prosperous . . . than at any time in its history," his proposed budget implicitly acknowledges sagging tax revenues compounded by budget deficiencies resulting from larger-than-estimated expenditures in program areas such as Medi-Cal and corrections.

Declaring in his inaugural address that the "fundamental quest must be to assist our children to be the best," Deukmejian has nonetheless begun to reverse four years of attempts to repair the damage done to the state's education system by his predecessors. They had exhorted California to "cut, squeeze and trim" and to "lower our expectations."

Deukmejian's call for decreased class size is made at the expense of programs to enhance the quality of education in this state. What good are fewer students in each class if there are fewer opportunities for intellectual growth? And once reading and enrichment programs are pared to ensure smaller classes on the lower level, where's the money to decrease class size in the higher grades?

"What could be more critical to California's competitive standing or to our future than education?" Take off the mask: How can California prosper by shortchanging its system of higher education and its ability to supply educated workers and managers for the larger economy?

In his State of the State address, the governor pledged that he would "fully implement Proposition 65 . . . the Safe Drinking Water and Toxics Enforcement Act." But his budget included no funding for implementation. That will come later. From where--given our tight budget and shrinking financial reserves? Put on the mask.

In his budget rhetoric, Deukmejian is Reaganesque. In reality, he is constrained far more by Brown's "era of limits." The Reagan approach to budgeting re-emerged during his presidency. And not only is Deukmejian trying to duplicate what Reagan did as governor, but more significantly, he masks reality in trying to duplicate what Reagan has done over the past six years. Early Reagan budgets reflected ideological priorities--strong defense, lower government spending almost everywhere else and "rosy scenarios." This Deukmejian budget also reflects ideological priorities (Reagan's cry for strong defense has become Deukmejian's call for tough law enforcement), lowered government spending almost everywhere and rosy scenarios.

But Reagan's new budget reflects reality in a way that Deukmejian's does not. As stringent as it seems to some, this Reagan budget is further away from his ideological rhetoric than any budget he's proposed, pulling back from dramatic defense-spending increases and large cutbacks of social programs.

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