Gov. Pete Wilson on Monday saluted Ventura County's politicians as quick-acting, hard-working leaders--and then tried to slip them the distasteful task of imposing a new sales tax to make up for drastic cuts in state aid.
California's estimated $8-billion budget gap this year compels the state to go further than ever before in commandeering funds from cities, counties and special districts, Wilson told 400 business and political leaders at the county's annual economic summit.
But rather than boost California's revenue by extending a statewide half-cent sales tax past its June 30 expiration date, Wilson argued that Sacramento legislators should let the tax die and pass responsibility for generating funds on to county supervisors.
If a majority of voters supported the levy on a ballot initiative, supervisors could impose their own half-cent sales tax and earmark the revenue for regional health care, crime prevention or education, Wilson said.
"A fundamental belief of mine is that in a nation-state of 32 million, we should make use of the county government and allow (local politicians) to set their own priorities," the Republican governor said.
Brushing aside the governor's compliments, Supervisors Vicky Howard, Maggie Kildee and Maria VanderKolk angrily denounced his plan as a not-so-subtle way of passing the buck. As Democrat Kildee put it, "It is a transfer of political heat."
VanderKolk, a Republican, agreed with her colleague's assessment. "God knows we don't want to hear that he's going to give us the opportunity to raise a sales tax while he cuts out our other revenues," VanderKolk said. "We need to communicate to him what his proposed budget will do to our economy here."
Although Wilson spoke and answered questions for 45 minutes, the supervisors expressed frustration that he seemed to sidestep questions about impending state raids on county and district coffers.
Wilson's proposed budget would eliminate $19 million from the county's fire district--almost half its annual operating budget--and as a result, supervisors may have to impose some form of tax simply to keep fire stations operating next year, Kildee said.
The governor's bleak view of the state's economic hardship clashed with the ritzy atmosphere of the two-hour conference, held over a well-stocked breakfast buffet in the exclusive Sherwood Country Club in unincorporated east county.
And indeed, Wilson's speech had little to do with the specific problems plaguing Ventura County.
The county's unemployment rate jumped to 9% in January, slightly higher than the state average of 8.5% and well above the national figure of 7.1%, labor officials announced last week. Construction jobs have been especially hard-hit, with a downturn in commercial and residential building.
Wilson devoted much of his address to blasting a federal plan to close eight California military bases--a proposal that threatens nearly 32,000 jobs across the state, but will result in a net loss of only about a dozen Ventura County jobs.
Scattered at tables throughout the vast, high-ceilinged conference room, the business and political leaders who had paid $40 each to attend the economic summit breakfast perked up when Wilson switched topics and vowed to reform the workers' compensation program.
Bursting into applause, they cheered his pledge to create a better business climate across California by lowering premiums, eliminating phony job-related stress claims and trimming the financial burden of workers' compensation.
Although Wilson proposed no specific fixes for Ventura County's ailing economy, he reiterated pledges to lure businesses to the state by offering tax incentives and reducing regulation. These promises, coupled with Wilson's willingness to listen to area business leaders, encouraged some participants.
"To the degree that this brings the governor's focus to key issues here and gives him a heightened awareness of the issues, it's very positive," said Tom Bryson, general manager of Southern California Edison.
As chairman of the Ventura County Council on Economic Vitality, a group of 40 business leaders and elected officials, Bryson urged city and county government to begin easing regulations immediately.
"We know what's wrong and we know what needs to be fixed," Bryson said in an energetic pep talk before Wilson took the microphone. "To improve economic vitality in Ventura County, we need action--pure, simple action."
The 40-member council, appointed by the Board of Supervisors last year, recommended that local governments streamline regulations, reduce the number of permits required to start up a business, and routinely ask local companies for advice on how to better serve them.
Several participants said learning about the council's work was the most valuable part of the two-hour conference, which lacked the substance of last year's daylong Ventura County economic summit.
"It should teach all of us that a cooperative effort between government and business is possible, even when they disagree, if they keep sitting in the same room until they hammer out an agreement," said Bob Beggs, a real estate consultant with Corporate Property Management Inc. of Port Hueneme.
Wilson said he planned to show the group's report to his colleagues in Sacramento as a model of public-private cooperation.
"My hat is off to you," Wilson told the crowd, which had greeted him with a standing ovation. "You have every reason to be proud--keep it up."