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Wilson Nears Decision on School Voucher Issue : Politics: The governor's aides are split on the ballot measure, and he risks angering voters regardless of his stance. But he will take a position, a spokesman says.

September 26, 1993|DANIEL M. WEINTRAUB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Fond of chiding state lawmakers for delaying difficult decisions, Gov. Pete Wilson now finds himself accused of political procrastination.

For months, Wilson has ducked the debate over the school voucher initiative, even though his call for a special election put the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Faced with a split among his advisers and the knowledge that whatever position he takes will anger a constituency he would like to cultivate, Wilson has done nothing.

Now, with the campaign over Proposition 174 about to enter its final month, Wilson apparently is prepared to speak out on the measure, which would provide taxpayer-supported vouchers of at least $2,600 a year for students attending private schools.

"The governor intends to take a position before Election Day," said Dan Schnur, Wilson's chief spokesman.

Schnur said Wilson is awaiting an analysis of the measure by his Finance Department. The governor's own comments on the issue indicate that the initiative's potential fiscal effects will weigh heavily on him as he makes a decision.

"Philosophically, the concept of vouchers is something he believes in," Schnur says. "But if the immediate fiscal impact is overwhelming, he'll have to take that into account."

As Wilson considers the question, he faces a conflict among some top advisers. Maureen DiMarco, his secretary for Child Development and Education, opposes the measure. Joseph Rodota, who as secretary of the governor's Cabinet coordinates the internal policy discussions, supports it. Both aides said they do not know which way Wilson will lean.

So far, the debate within the Administration over this highly charged issue has remained civil, sources said.

Wilson has met separately with supporters and opponents of the measure and has asked his staff to provide information about the initiative and its effects. He is less interested in the opinions--conflicting or otherwise--of his advisers.

The measure is backed by a bipartisan but mostly Republican mix of free-market advocates who are critical of the state's public education system--essentially people whom Wilson needs to have firmly in his corner as he prepares to run for reelection next year.

The opponents are led by the California Teachers Assn.--the state's largest teachers' union and a constant thorn in Wilson's side. But the measure also is opposed by the PTA, school administrators and other public education advocates who remain on good terms with the governor.

When Wilson does take a position, it will come not a moment too soon for his critics in the state Democratic Party, who have been hounding him mercilessly for staying out of the fray.

"If Wilson wants to be governor, he ought to be able to say yes or no to major questions," said Bob Mulholland, political director for the state Democratic Party, which is helping to lead the opposition to the measure. "This is the most critical proposition facing education in the state of California. You can't be governor and run from major decisions like this."

The front-runners for next year's Democratic nomination for governor, Treasurer Kathleen Brown and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, both oppose Proposition 174.

The official supporters and opponents of the initiative are treating Wilson more kindly. But they are no less eager for him to take a stand. In addition to making their arguments on the policy at stake, both camps say they believe there are good political reasons for Wilson to join their side.

Ken Khachigian, the Orange County-based political consultant who is heading the campaign for Proposition 174, said he hopes Wilson examines the role of the teachers' union before making his decision.

"I hope he will think long and hard that if he ever came out against this it would be a position he shared with people who have called him every name in the book and are prepared to spend millions to try to get him out of office," Khachigian said. "On Nov. 2 this election ends, and on Nov. 3 the CTA starts its all-out campaign to defeat him."

Donna Lucas, a consultant for the opposition, said she doubts Wilson will support the measure simply because he is angry at the teachers' union.

"That's not a good reason to take a major policy position on an initiative that is going to impact the state for decades to come," she said. "I'm confident the governor is going to take a position based on the merits."

Yet Lucas is not shy about pointing out that she believes it is to Wilson's advantage to "come out sooner than later" against the measure in order to avoid being seen as jumping on a bandwagon at the last minute. And she notes that several other prominent Republicans have opposed the measure.

"He would be in very good company," she said.

Despite all the hand-wringing, governors probably have little sway on public opinion in the middle of initiative battles that feature millions of dollars in often-emotional and misleading television advertising.

Still, both sides say Wilson's backing would be important to their campaign.

"I very much want his endorsement," Khachigian said. "He is the governor, and what the governor says is always important."

Lucas said she is "very hopeful" that Wilson will oppose the proposal.

"All the facts point him in that direction," she said.

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