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George Deukmejian, Meet George Babbitt

February 14, 1988|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe directs the Study of State Legislative Leadership at the Institute of Government and Politics at USC.

In the annual address to the Zenith Real Estate Board, that paragon of the Middle-American business ethic, George F. Babbitt, declaimed:

"It's evident to anyone with a head for facts that Zenith is the finest example of American life and prosperity to be found anywhere . . . the famous Zenith spirit, that clean fighting determination to win Success that has made little old Zip City celebrated in every land and clime . . . . " In the annual State of the State address to the California Legislature, Gov. George Deukmejian said:

"California is clearly more than just a state. We are a superpower of prosperity . . . . With our strength, our wonderful diversity and our ideal location on the Pacific Rim, California can indeed become America's high-performance state. We can make the greatest state in the greatest country on earth shine with golden opportunities for all our people. The best is yet to come."

It is obvious that the spirit of Sinclair Lewis' model of corporate and civic boosterism is alive and well and governing in Sacramento. That is not to say that Deukmejian is a greedy man who cuts corners to gain a buck, as Lewis' Babbitt was wont to do. But there is a lot in Deukmejian and his political world view which reminds us of that "Regular Fellow" from Zenith, Ohio, a basically decent man--"I know of no man," trumpets Babbitt's Booster Club president, "who stands more staunchly for common sense and enterprise than good old George"--a man who embraces popular values, who views the world from the narrow, but comfortable, perspective of white, middle-class male America and judges what's good for that world accordingly.

There were moves to be applauded in the governor's speech and the budget message that followed. But every one of them had to do with middle-class concerns. His 1988-89 budget, the governor said, "enables us to devote more funds to my priority areas . . . namely education, job creation, transportation and protection of the public's health and safety."

But what was alarming was what wasn't said and where the money emphasis was placed within each category. As one Democratic legislator observed, Deukmejian "comforted the comfortable and forgot the afflicted--once again."

Education was promised more money than it had received in a long time. Last year reality didn't match rhetoric--and rhetoric between the governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig became ugly and potentially politically damaging. But Honig and Deukmejian reached an accommodation, giving Honig a strong hand in school policy in return for an election-year truce. Even so, this "historic" increase in K-12 aid comes to about $4 more per pupil than was appropriated two years ago. California now ranks 27th in the nation in per-pupil spending and 50th in class size--not exactly Zip City.

To meet the demands of the state's growth, while skirting both the Gann limits and the need to raise taxes, Deukmejian has proposed almost $4 billion in bonds to be used to finance new construction and maintenance of schools, prisons and highways. That means a significant increase in the state's obligation of general-fund revenues to debt service.

Having given a billion-dollar tax rebate to citizens, he (along with state legislators who introduced, before January's end, 33 bills to put more than $13 billion in bonds on this year's ballots) would place an unprecedented burden on future generations of taxpayers, so that "California can enter the new century as America's high performance state." But as Babbitt explained, "I've never done anything that wasn't necessary to keep the Wheels of Progress moving."

Like Babbitt and his crowd, Deukmejian takes a hard line on crime. Babbitt despised "folks that think a jail ought to to be a bloomin' Hotel Thornleigh . . . . If people don't like a jail," he said, "let 'em behave 'emselves and keep out of it."

Unveiling his program "to build more prisons and put more criminals behind bars," the governor declared, "Some see prison overcrowding and look for alternatives to incarceration . . . . We should not consider further alternatives to incarceration so long as there are hardened criminals who will not consider alternatives to crime."

The governor's budget reflects his focus on cars and highways. He rates California's system as "one of the best transportation networks in the world," but made no mention of the need for more and better mass transit. He also ignored the problems of homelessness and the inadequate funding allocated to combat it. With no new programs added in the budget and most existing programs kept at or near their current levels, problems such as air pollution, the crisis in emergency health care and support for social services remain unresolved. There is no vision, only the minimal "charity" required by the current "social code."

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