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The Senate Races: California Needs More Than a Personality Parade : Politics: The state has a slew of problems--like the drought and air pollution--that require Washington help--but will the candidates talk about them?

July 07, 1991|Mary Ellen Leary | Mary Ellen Leary, a correspondent for the Economist, is a veteran California political writer

PIEDMONT, CALIF. — It is a painful irony that just when California is entering a changed and troubled era, its unstoppable growth smack up against newly recognized limits on water, air, space, mobility, housing, schoolrooms and jobs--just now, when this reality clamors for new levels of federal assistance and leadership--the state will be resting its cause in the hands of neophytes in the U.S. Senate.

Whoever gets elected next year to fill the state's two Senate seats--whether the one-year incumbent, Republican John Seymour, is returned or a rival elected for the two-year term, and either a Democrat or Republican elected for the six-year term--both California mantles will fall on Senate freshmen.

For the largest state, with all the complex problems that growth produces, resting representation in the seniority-centered U.S. Senate on newcomers would seem precarious at any point in history. For California, this happens to be a particularly hazardous point in history.

There is a plus side. Whoever is chosen, it is clear from the roster of hopefuls they will be relatively young, vigorous, knowledgeable about government and hard-working. Some in Washington claim this election will give California strikingly effective voices--in the long run.

It's the short run that is troubling. The state is overwhelmed by problems not of its own making. Its size and the composition of its economy make it particularly sensitive to shifts occuring in the world marketplace. European changes may affect Eastern states more, but free trade with Mexico and Canada promises, despite temporary employment dislocations, to enhance California exports in the future. Markets in Asia are already expanding so much that the Long Beach-Los Angeles port is the nation's busiest.

But in the midst of this inviting prospect, the rapidity of California's population increase--three-quarters of a million last year alone--puts such pressure on state services and finances, on suburban geography and urban social programs that thoughtful Californians consider greater federal assistance a necessity. One-third of the state's annual growth is due to immigration; one-third of all immigrants in the United States live in California.

In such a rare double election as this state faces, voters will look for serious airing of issues around which their lives will be shaped in the near future. This election, California cannot afford the trivializing of politics that 30-second TV sound bites invite.

The five-year drought has provided the opening agenda: water policy, agriculture, land use, pollution. Many long-familiar federally related programs need reshaping. It isn't just that money is needed. New levels of effectiveness in government programs have to be achieved to justify the money. Fairness now suggests that taxpayer subsidies for water that transformed California desert valleys into abundant farmlands might be better applied to urban sectors burdened by the influx of new arrivals.

The competition for water that agriculture faces from cities will continue. It changes the whole price structure. With cities paying generously to tap water from rice fields and alfalfa stands, it is absurd that the Bush Administration aims to renew 40-year contracts to irrigation districts. As though nothing had changed, the Bureau of Reclamation proposes volumes of water and subsidies quite similar to those designed for agriculture's start-up era.

Yet voices are being raised in agreement with Lewis Butler, chairman of California Tomorrow, who urges a swap in federal subsidies. Support should shift, he says, from agricultural water to aid for cities and counties burdened with the services new multitudes require. Farmers, guarding California's $18-billion-a-year produce, may be outraged. But they are already desperate. Henry Voss, director of the State Department of Food and Agriculture, has warned, "We may have seen the golden age of agriculture pass."

Many issues long thought postponable are now urgent. Underground waters are being drained, but pollutants in them pose a problem. Nitrates in the Riverside area so contaminate well water that six of 19 basins have been closed. A Central Valley drain, discussed for decades, is an urgent necessity. Re-use of water must be increased and desalination accepted.

Other issues clamor for attention, too:

--Transportation: There is promise that flexibility in the new highway bill will give California a means of expanding rail transit as well as repairing bridges and highways. Congestion is a high-priority problem in California. It needs continuing Washington response.

--Air quality: The Los Angeles region is far more rigorous in curbing auto emissions and encouraging alternate fuels than Washington, but this region can't go it alone. It needs federal laws improving gas-mileage requirements for new cars, stricter limits on air pollution and substantial encouragement for use of natural gas or electric power in fleet vehicles.

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