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AS THE DEBRIS SETTLES, THE Politians Shake : Government: California's elected leaders came through after the quake, but the state needs long-term relief from its 'no-tax, no-spend' policies.

November 05, 1989|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

Crisis mobilizes public opinion and public opinion motivates politicians. Response to crisis is not only a function of gov ernment, it is a test of its political survival.

In response to the Northern California earthquake Oct. 17, the state's political leadership re-emerged. Styles differed, but the job generally got done.

The conduct of California politicians at every level of government may have helped to raise their low public esteem. Officials whose districts were hardest hit were out being visible, comforting victims, expediting help. The state's usually fractious congressional delegation worked with a unity rarely seen to secure federal disaster aid.

San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) staked out a strong media presence. Agnos, like Katz, appeared active, aggressive, knowledgeable--and all over the tube.

With less media hype, but with no less competence, Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, acting governor when the quake hit, and Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson showed calm and quiet authority.

Gov. George Deukmejian started strong. He returned from abroad to take charge quickly. He appeared prescient in demanding his "prudent" reserve. But questions remain about how much will be available for earthquake relief and how much has been exhausted already to cover Deukmejian's initial underfunding of programs.

And the governor may lose the debate over responsibility for Caltrans' inept handling of infrastructure maintenance policy. Deukmejian insisted that nobody informed him of the Nimitz Freeway problems. Of course not. His leadership style and political philosophy discourage that.

Messages have come down loud and clear and constantly from the governor's office that spending must be cut or that programs must make do with already limited funds.

Under those circumstances, what brave soul wants to tell the governor what he doesn't want to hear? Why bother to ship a memo upstairs when you already know what the response will be? Why risk rocking the boat? That's a standard bureaucratic response.

Until recently, state schools chief Bill Honig remained strangely quiet, despite the fact that damage to schools could reach $50 million to $100 million. Why wasn't Honig out front early? Perhaps because Proposition 98 guarantees the state's schools 40% of the state budget and the major share of any general-fund surplus. A post-quake tax increase proposal could change that. Finally, Honig seems to have accepted a temporary waiver of Proposition 98, but only if the schools are "treated as fairly as everyone else" in recouping earthquake losses.

Despite infrastructure failures, the quake showed that government regulation works. Overall, newer structures, built according to tougher state and local earthquake standards, survived. Older structures and ill-maintained roads and buildings suffered greater damage.

Still, the Nimitz Freeway collapse demonstrated that regulation is not enough--not without a continuing infusion of money and a strong political will. For more than a decade, since the passage of Proposition 13 and the Gann state spending limits, California has been unable to commit to either.

Anti-tax fervor has forced years of bare-bones state and local budgets. Government officials are stuck with hard policy choices. Limited funds are spent on the most visible, popular or politically sensitive programs.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And don't fix it if it costs too much--unless it is politically threatening." That became the politicians' mantra. And the most fervent acolyte has been Deukmejian.

That's why long-term infrastructure maintenance and repair--lacking immediate political gratification and sound-bite potential--were deferred at every level of government. And social services for the poor--never a powerful interest group--suffered. And the state's health-care system atrophied.

Now the quake has given us a graphic lesson in just how detrimental the "don't tax, don't spend" philosophy can be.

For example, in Los Angeles County inadequate funding has forced homeless shelters to cut back or close programs. They are at or near capacity today. How will they cope with the tens of thousands of people in Los Angeles likely to be left homeless or stranded by a severe quake?

And the decrease in health-care funding has forced trauma and health centers to close, leaving the county unprepared to cope with a catastrophic emergency.

The collapse of major arteries underscored how decrepit our state's infrastructure has become under Govs. Deukmejian and Edmund G. Brown Jr., and red-flagged the lack of alternative transportation systems, particularly in Southern California.

Up north the earthquake made people angry and frustrated. Everywhere Californians are concerned and scared. Politicians are responding to those emotions. And the need to make the state whole again may liberate governments from the bondage of "no new taxes" politics.

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