SACRAMENTO — State Controller Gray Davis accused Gov. George Deukmejian on Thursday of taking a "stop-and-start" approach toward education, but he acknowledged that schools also were "shortchanged" during the tenure of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., whom Davis served as chief of staff.
"The emphasis and commitment to education during those (Brown) years was not what it could have been," conceded Davis, who was Brown's top aide from 1974 to 1981. But Deukmejian, he said, is doing very little "long-range thinking" about the issue and appears to be "backing off" the commitments he made to public education during his first term in office.
During a wide-ranging interview at a breakfast session with The Times Sacramento Bureau, Davis also outlined his plans to slow the pace of new offshore oil drilling in state waters and said he is considering using private collection agencies to recapture hundreds of millions of dollars in delinquent taxes that state agencies had simply "written off" as bad debts.
Davis, who is a Democrat, also tried to turn the heat up on the Republican governor, contending he faces "a test" of his dedication to social justice in deciding whether to support a Franchise Tax Board regulation that would bar members of discriminatory clubs from claiming club expenses as business deductions. Deukmejian has been reluctant to endorse governmental action against these clubs.
At times, Davis sounded like a candidate beginning to define the issues of his expected 1990 campaign for governor. But he refused to discuss speculation about his political future, saying only: "If you do a good job and that gets communicated to people, you have a record on which to seek their approval for anything."
Turning his attention to the debate over educational financing, Davis came down solidly on the side of state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who has strongly criticized Deukmejian for setting aside too little money in his budget for schools.
"I don't know if the governor has a long-range plan for education," Davis said. "I think he provided some leadership in the first couple of years. But I'm distressed that we appear to be pulling back."
Davis said the top priority should be to raise salaries of the highest achieving teachers, using money from a recently discovered $958-million budget surplus.
The state's constitutional spending limit requires that the surplus be refunded to taxpayers, distributed to local governments or used to retire bonded debt. But Davis said there may be ways of legally spending the money on education, transportation and other high priority programs while attempts are made to modify the spending limit.
Pressed as to why more was not done for schools during his years as Brown's top aide, Davis said good-naturedly, "You've got my mea culpa on this issue." As governor, Brown threatened to let the schools "starve" until they enacted reforms he favored. During much of Brown's tenure, school budget increases ran well behind the rate of inflation.
On matters closer to the powers of his office, Davis said that as a member of the State Lands Commission, he intends to vote against new offshore drilling permits in state waters if drilling in nearby federal waters is already hurting shoreline communities.
Davis and Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, two of the three commission members, have announced that they will vote against an Atlantic Richfield Co. proposal to build three oil-drilling platforms on state tidelands off the Santa Barbara coast. But Davis' proposal to draft a comprehensive plan that considers the impact of pollution, tanker traffic and other factors arising from federal offshore oil wells could threaten oil drilling in more than 30 unexplored state tidelands lease sites up and down the coast.
"There may be some areas of the coast where drilling in federal and state waters makes sense," he said. "But the first concern ought to be for the well-being and welfare of the affected communities."
Davis' plan to hire collection agencies to go after delinquent taxpayers would be a radical departure from current practice, in which the state demands payment and then attempts to collect by garnisheeing wages or seizing assets. Davis said as much as $700 million in delinquent payments have been "written off" by agencies as bad debts that could be collected by an aggressive agency. Legislation already has been introduced to carry out the plan.