SACRAMENTO — In a long-awaited statement, Gov. Pete Wilson announced Tuesday that he opposes the school voucher initiative on next month's ballot, dealing a new blow to the badly underfunded pro-voucher campaign.
Wilson said in a prepared statement that although he supports the concept of school vouchers, Proposition 174 would drain $1 billion to $1.6 billion from state coffers over the next three years.
"With California facing the very real possibility of a fourth year of falling revenue and resulting budget cuts," Wilson said, "I cannot responsibly advocate taking a risk that, given the odds, could seriously worsen the state's budget situation and jeopardize funding for education."
The governor announced his stand a day after President Clinton came out against Proposition 174 on the Nov. 2 ballot, and weeks after state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, Wilson's main Democratic rivals for the 1994 gubernatorial election, took their stands against it.
Opponents of the measure hailed the governor's decision. In a statement, Robert Nelson, strategist for the opposition effort, said Wilson "agrees that our state budget simply cannot withstand the permanent, new, billion-dollar-per-year entitlement program . . . just to pay for those students who are already in private schools."
Ken Khachigian, campaign manager for the Yes on 174 group, called the governor's stand a "very deep disappointment." Proponents had lobbied the governor hard to endorse the measure, hoping that with Wilson's support they could gain credibility with Republican sources of campaign funds.
"It basically deprives us of some financial support," Khachigian said, estimating that he could have raised another $500,000 from the business community with Wilson's endorsement.
If it passes, Proposition 174 would give parents vouchers worth about $2,600 for use toward tuition at private schools. The legislative analyst's office places the cost at hundreds of millions in the first few years. Like the governor, the legislative analyst based his estimate on predictions of the number of students already enrolled in private schools who would use vouchers.
Some Orange County Republicans who support the voucher initiative were outraged by Wilson's announcement, calling it a betrayal. Several warned that the governor's position might leave him without conservatives' support in his reelection bid.
The state Republican Party has twice endorsed Proposition 174.
"This just demonstrates to people that he's a visionless technocrat, he's completely out of step with rank-and-file Republicans," said Matt Cunningham, a Yes on 174 volunteer who works in a Republican legislator's office. "Instead of taking the side of parents and children, he's sided with Bill Clinton, the (California Teachers Assn.) and other defenders of the status quo and educational mediocrity."
Although some conservative Republicans oppose the measure, Wilson's stand appeared to push him further from conservatives in his party, including potential GOP presidential candidates.
William J. Bennett, education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, and Jack Kemp, former housing and urban development secretary under President George Bush, have come out in favor of the initiative. Former Gov. George Deukmejian also supports the initiative, as does the California Republican Party.
"If anything, some of the conservatives are going to get more fired up" in support of the initiative, Khachigian said. "I'm more fired up than I was yesterday."
By opposing the measure, Wilson is siding with the powerful California Teachers Assn., a group that has repeatedly battled him. It is among the largest donors to Democratic candidates and has spent more than $8 million to fight Proposition 174.
"CTA has had many disagreements with Pete Wilson, and we may have many more in the months or years ahead," said Del Weber, the union's president. "But simple fairness says that we should now publicly commend him for showing vision and courage in taking a stand against 174."
Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who backs Proposition 174, described the governor's action as "strictly 100% political."
"He's not willing to fight for the children of this state is what it amounts to," Ferguson said. "I'm surprised because he needs the support of our party and he needs the support of conservatives in order to win. . . . He's saying to the Republican Party, especially to the conservatives, 'In your face.' "
But Ferguson's neighbor and colleague, state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) welcomed the governor to the anti-voucher camp, calling Wilson's "the correct position to take."
"Many Republicans support it and many Republicans oppose it--most everyone would agree, though, that our public schools are in trouble," said Bergeson, a former public-school teacher and Newport Beach school board member.
"It isn't as though I don't feel there should be options to the parents, but I think there are some questions about what would happen to the public schools (if Proposition 174 passes)," she said. "Schools need a good deal of restructuring, and, win or lose, the voucher initiative will emphasize that public schools have to vastly improve."
Times staff writer Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this story.