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Message Is the Problem, Not the Messenger

June 03, 1993|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson and President Clinton have been suffering from the same illusion: that if only they could better "communicate their message," people would understand and be more supportive.

So they hop on airplanes to go see the people, trying to emulate "The Great Communicator" Ronald Reagan with showy events designed to earn 90-second slots on the TV news. Wilson also recently attempted to mimic Ross Perot with a taped infomercial that, according to a spokesman, has been shown by more than 100 cable operators.

The governor, however, has not pushed aside his young communications director, Dan Schnur, as Clinton did George Stephanopoulos. When Schnur, 29, came to Sacramento 2 1/2 years ago, he was as inexperienced in the ways of the state Capitol as Stephanopolos, 32, is in the intricacies of Washington. But Schnur, for the most part, has seemed less arrogant and more willing to learn.

And in a reverse twist of fate, Wilson brought with him to the Capitol his own "David Gergen." But that savvy, experienced adviser, Otto Bos, died of a heart attack three years ago this week and the governor never has recovered from the loss, administratively or personally.

The point here, however, is that it is not the communicating but the messages that are a major reason why the Republican governor and the Democratic President have plunged to record lows in the polls, hard economic times aside. In retrospect, the messages often have been communicated too well. Some simply have been unpopular; many have been mixed.


This is no place to chronicle Clinton. But as for Wilson, his ill-begotten messages cover the gamut, from education to business to the environment. And two pet issues that have inspired many signals are now causing him colossal headaches: taxes and law enforcement.

In campaigning for the job, Wilson advertised himself to voters as a fiscal conservative. But facing the first of three red-ink budgets shortly after taking office, the new governor raised taxes by a record $7.6 billion. The real sin was that he did it with little hesitation. He also imposed a new tax on snacks, which voters emphatically repealed at the next general election.

Stung by criticisms from the Republican right, Wilson next reverted to the role of anti-tax crusader. Rejecting the urgings of some advisers to stay flexible, the governor dug in his heels against extending a temporary half-cent sales tax increase beyond a scheduled June 30 expiration date. He dismissed warnings throughout the Capitol that the $1.4 billion in annual revenue was needed to balance the next budget.

Wilson has argued strongly that continuing the tax would break a promise to the public. But this has not been a popular message with voters. The latest statewide survey by the Field Poll found that the sales tax extension was favored three to two by Republicans and more than two to one by Democrats. The Times Poll also has found overwhelming public preference for continuing the sales tax hike.

Not even Wilson's political friends in the business community are lobbying for expiration of the sales tax. But they are adamantly opposed to his budget-balancing alternative--taking $2.6 billion in property tax revenues from local government and giving it to schools to make up for reduced state aid.

Under Wilson's proposal, local governments would be left with only 44% of all property tax revenues; the rest would go to schools. The state Chamber of Commerce contends that this is a job-killer because local governments would be less inclined to approve residential and manufacturing projects if they were entitled to less than half the new property tax receipts.

But Wilson is taking his biggest pounding from another longtime ally--local law enforcement. Sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys have personally lobbied him en mass the past 10 days, bluntly warning that his property tax shift would result in fewer prosecutions, closed jails, prematurely released criminals and massive layoffs.

These law officials are pressuring the governor to at least extend the sales tax for another six months, until voters have a chance to decide whether to hike local taxes at a statewide election he has called for November. And Wilson reportedly is on the verge of agreeing to that.


In the end, the only message voters really want to hear from an officeholder is: "I got the job done." Promises need credibility. Blaming legislators doesn't work.

And Wilson has four weeks to produce the first on-time budget of his Administration. To do it, he'll need to give on taxes and send another mixed message. But that would be more popular than another summer gridlock with the Legislature.

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