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NEWS ANALYSIS : Defense Industry Boon Means State Now Takes Hit


WASHINGTON — Amid cries of protest that the state was unfairly singled out by the latest recommended list of military base closings, California political leaders tend to gloss over some basic history: Over the past decade, no state has come close to the number of military and civilian jobs in California.

In 1991, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 67 major bases in California employed 309,991 people. No other state had more than 200,000 such jobs, and only four states had more than 100,000.

"Those that profited the most by the military building up obviously are going to be hurt the most by military cuts," said Lawrence J. Korb, a military affairs expert at the Brookings Institution. "There is no way around it."

For years, California's dominance of the defense industry has been the envy of regions that fared poorly in securing bases and multibillion-dollar government contracts. And although direct military employment and facilities make up only part of the overall defense economy, California also led the nation in Pentagon procurement and aerospace work.

Now that the Defense Department budget is shrinking and California is suffering from 9.8% unemployment, the state's plight elicits little sympathy from outside California.

Merrill E. Wegner, an analyst with the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition, said the 18 states she represents have long complained that they were denied their fair share of military facilities and jobs.

"California has so many installations spread out along the state it is amazing," Wegner said. "Our argument now is that there's nothing left to chop in the Midwest."

To be sure, California swallowed a disproportionate slice of cuts from base closings initiated in 1988 and 1991. Seventeen bases will close, more than twice the number of any other state. Those reductions are expected to cause 48,805 job losses, or 60% of the personnel reductions nationwide.

On March 12, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin proposed a third round of cuts that would be similarly devastating to the state. Of the 31 bases and 81,396 jobs that Aspin suggested eliminating, eight sites and 31,747 jobs--or 39%--are in California.

The list is in the hands of the independent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which has until July 1 to send its recommendation to President Clinton and Congress for approval. If accepted, the panel's proposal would take effect Sept. 1.

Even if all of Aspin's cuts are adopted, California will be left with about 12% of the nation's military bases and jobs--the same proportion of the state's population to the rest of the country.

The cuts would have been worse had California lawmakers not pressured Clinton and Aspin to spare some of the state's bases from the list suggested by the individual armed services. The lobbying campaign, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), succeeded in winning a reprieve for 21,100 jobs at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento and the Defense Language Institute at the Army's Monterey Presidio.

In an interview last weekend with California reporters, Clinton acknowledged that his Administration had been persuaded by the argument that California was being disproportionately hurt. "I do think you've got to give credit to the people who made that intense plea," the President said.

The show of influence by California's congressional delegation was criticized by some members of Congress from other states threatened by closures. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) circulated a draft letter last week among Republican members of the Armed Service Committee that said the lobbying by California senators Feinstein and Barbara Boxer had "cast a shadow" over the entire base closure process.

"If the basis for the removal of the California installations is not thoroughly reviewed, the past and future base closure process may be tainted," the letter said.

On Thursday, onetime presidential candidate Ross Perot voiced similar concerns.

"This base closing thing is turning into a joke," Perot told reporters at the National Press Club. "If it was rational to begin with, it's all political now. I love these folks out in California who hate the military (and) wanted to get rid of the military. Now when they see it disappearing from California, they have a new love-in."

For their part, California lawmakers said they do not accept that their state deserves a heftier share of military cuts simply because it has the largest share of bases and employees.

The latest round of reductions are "unfair, unfair, unfair" for California, Feinstein said.

From a strategic standpoint, Feinstein said, she finds it difficult to understand why the Pentagon brass opted to leave the entire Central Coast of California "vulnerable" by recommending six closures in the San Francisco Bay Area. Feinstein also questioned the wisdom of the Navy consolidating its ships in the San Diego area.

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