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Where Have All The Leaders Gone? : California Could Use One

December 16, 1990|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

If they made a movie about the legacy of Gov. George Deukmejian, it would be a short subject.

Why? What happened? To paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan, is California better off than it was was eight years ago?

The simple answer is no.

But, in closing the books on the Deukmejian Administration,Californians must understand that it is not all this governor's fault.

Much of the change that has occurred in California during the past eight years has had very little to do with Deukmejian. We moved from the economic boom of the Reagan years to the Bush slump; people kept coming to California in record numbers--straining the state's infrastructure and social services. Voters repeatedly returned Democratic legislative majorities and a Republican governor.

In two important areas, Deukmejian--working with the legislative leadership--has made a positive difference. On gun control, he stood with law enforcement and against his National Rifle Assn. constituency. In 1989, his support for the Roberti-Roos assault-weapons bill gave Republican legislators dispensation to vote for it; that was crucial to its passage. And--after the narrow defeat of a Deukmejian-sponsored transportation bond measure on the June, 1988, ballot--the governor took a leadership role in piecing together the delicate compromise that became Proposition 111 on the June 1990 ballot. He was active in the campaign to pass it. The package, which provided critical traffic-congestion relief, spending limit reform and a gas-tax increase, won narrowly.

Like all governors, Deukmejian has had the capability to set the tone for policy. For example, he moved to reorder the state's spending priorities and the way in which they are financed. In so doing, he may well have rendered the state incapable of coping with the results.

When Deukmejian first took office in 1983, there was rejoicing on both sides of the legislative aisle. Lawmakers reckoned that, with 16 years of experience, Deukmejian would understand the legislative process better than Jerry Brown ever could--and work with the Legislature in a way Brown seldom did. At the very least, Deukmejian had a longer attention span.

That turned out to be part of the problem. The new governor's concentration became a stubborn fixation on two overriding goals: "to make California safe again" and "to restore fiscal responsibility without a net tax increase." If these priorities define Deukmejian's legacy, he has failed on both counts.

And his unyielding pursuit of these goals--while virtually ignoring the state's exploding population growth and economic problems--has left Californians, said one Sacramento observer, "a legacy of absence of leadership when the state desperately needed some."

In law enforcement, Deukmejian's legacy is not one of a governor who attacked the root causes of crime and shaped the values and programs necessary to deter it. It is the legacy of a prosecutor consumed with exacting punishment.

Building more prisons has not made California safe again. It has increased our bonded indebtedness. In November's election, California voters finally cried "enough" and defeated all but two bond issues, including $1.4 billion in prison and jail bonds.

Deukmejian's appointment of hard-line conservatives and prosecutors to the bench may have altered the ideological mix of the judiciary; but that may not guarantee Deukmejian's law-and- order legacy.

Argued one attorney, "Appointing deputy district attorneys doesn't always work out. The judicial system makes them behave like judges."

And what of Deukmejian's inaugural pledge to turn this state's finances "from IOU to A-OK"?

Early in November, Deukmejian pronounced himself "proud of the fact that while I inherited a budget deficit from my predecessor, I will leave my successor . . . a balanced budget."

He hasn't. With a shortfall of about $800 million looming over the current fiscal year and a revenue gap of around $6 billion projected for the next budget, the legacy Deukmejian will leave Gov.-elect Pete Wilson is exactly the one he wanted to avoid: a state fiscal crisis of monumental proportions.

Again, he had help.

Over the past few months, California's economy, like that of the nation, has cooled considerably. And that translates into a slowdown in anticipated state revenue growth.

At the same time, estimates of revenues have been falling, according to a recent report by the state's legislative analyst, spending projections have been rising--driven by those changes Deukmejian kept ignoring.

By his obdurate refusal to raise taxes, Deukmejian has shrunk the revenue pot. Dispersing whatever remains has been further complicated by the politics of ballot-box budgeting--the fiscal straitjacket imposed by the Gann spending limits and by passage of Proposition 98 earmarking about 40% of state general-fund spending for education.

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