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NEWS ANALYSIS : Deukmejian--a Lame Duck's Battle : Administration: As his term draws to a close, he will find it increasingly difficult to retain his political power and aura. But if he succeeds, he may achieve his agenda.

January 11, 1990|GEORGE SKELTON | TIMES SACRAMENTO BUREAU CHIEF

SACRAMENTO — This is what it's like to be a lame-duck governor: You walk into your office one morning to find a vise clamped to your desk and a workman standing there sawing Venetian blinds, redecorating the place for the next governor--George Deukmejian.

That happened to Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. "He just exploded," recalled his former chief-of-staff, B.T. Collins. "The governor was trying to make a phone call and there's this guy using a power saw at his desk."

That is not likely to happen to Deukmejian. His is a different style. Nobody saws Venetian blinds on this governor's desk.

But one way or another, Deukmejian--as have most governors before him--undoubtedly will find it increasingly difficult to maintain his power and political aura as his final term draws to an end.

And the governor's ability to retain authority, command respect and keep top aides focused on his priorities--not their own futures--will determine the extent to which he is able to achieve the ambitious lame-duck agenda he laid out in his State of the State Address and his proposed $53.7-billion budget for the next fiscal year.

Central to that agenda, it became obvious Wednesday, is making everybody aware of a growing state fiscal dilemma. Deukmejian is determined not to be blamed for future budget crises, as Brown was for the $1.5-billion deficit that this Administration inherited. Trapped by programs growing faster than revenues and a state spending limit that effectively prevents a tax increase even if he wanted one, Deukmejian proposed health and welfare cuts totaling more than $1 billion.

"Unless we live up to the challenge of living within our means, we could find ourselves back to where we were in 1982 (as Brown was leaving office)," Deukmejian warned in a speech Wednesday to a Sacramento civic organization. "In the strongest possible terms, I am saying to my friends in the Legislature--and to those who wish to succeed me--that sooner or later, we will have to pay the piper.

"I'm not asking anyone to fall on a sword. I'm asking them to join me in doing what is right and responsible for our state and our future. And since I'm not running for anything, I'll be glad to take the heat." Taking the heat for health and welfare cuts is a lot easier for a fiscally conservative, Republican governor than it is for a liberal Democrat. For somebody like Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chairman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), it indeed is like falling on a sword. And this tends to strain the "spirit of unity and goodwill" that Deukmejian talked proudly about in his State of the State Address and hasten the crippling of a lame duck.

For example, Vasconcellos was praising Deukmejian as a "born-again liberal" after the State of the State Address. But the next morning, after seeing the budget proposal, the veteran lawmaker was denouncing the governor's spending priorities as "obscene" and "indecent." This is significant because Deukmejian's budget must somehow make its way through Vasconcellos' committee.

"I'm tempted to send it back to him and say, 'Governor, this won't work,' " Vasconcellos declared. "It's gimmickry. I refuse to be a party to starving seniors and poor kids. I don't plan to make that part of my legacy."

Deukmejian is trying to polish his legacy and time is running out. That legacy largely will hinge, he and his advisers realize, on whether they and their allies can persuade voters this June to approve a delicately-negotiated 10-year, $18.5-billion transportation plan. The sweeping package has the side effect of lifting the state spending limit and providing some breathing room for health and welfare and other programs. But it also raises the gas tax by 9 cents a gallon, starting with a nickel and increasing by a penny a year.

"This plan is absolutely essential," Deukmejian said in his State of the State Address, uncharacteristically pushing for a tax hike. "If you want to spend less time stuck in traffic . . . then I suggest it is worth paying a few more pennies a day."

Deukmejian also has a lengthy legislative agenda--help for first-time home buyers, incentives for year-around schools, mandatory earthquake insurance, health insurance for all workers. But all this will require a cooperative Legislature and a focused Administration in the terminal year of a gubernatorial cycle not normally known for either.

There is one theory in the Capitol--expostulated in a backhanded compliment sort of way--that Deukmejian may not be any lamer as a lame duck than he was as an indefinitely ensconced governor with potentially an even greater political future. The reasoning is that this Republican governor did not really begin working successfully with the Democratic Legislature until after he became a lame duck last year anyway.

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