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Wilson Banks on His Budget Record to Win N.H. Votes : Politics: Governor is portraying himself as the leader of a successful attack on spending. His critics are saying he's distorted the facts.

August 26, 1995|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Speaking to a group of lawyers in New Hampshire recently, California Gov. Pete Wilson tried to make a point so important to his presidential campaign that it was illustrated on a colorful chart big enough for the television cameras to notice.

"This is reality," Wilson declared, pointing to the display. "In the red, that is the federal deficit. The blue represents the budget surplus that we would have . . . if the feds had employed the same kind of discipline . . . we have in California."

It was a speech tut-tutting those Washington lawmakers--such as his chief rivals in the Republican presidential contest--who have not made the difficult spending cuts required to balance the budget. And it was bragging that if Washington had followed the "Wilson Way" during the last five years, it would have transformed its troubling budget deficit into a $32-billion surplus.

But the story Wilson told in New Hampshire is not the same as it is remembered by some of the state officials who also experienced these last few years in California.

"It is not as if the governor squirreled away some money and prevented people from spending it," said Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who served as state controller during Wilson's first term. "There simply was no money. I guess any governor could take a bow for holding down spending during a recession. But it's like you could say after a hurricane, look at my new housing program."

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Wilson's presidential campaign has received most of its national attention for the sizzling-hot controversies surrounding his opposition to affirmative action programs and public benefits for illegal immigrants. But especially in the Northeast, where the early primaries are crucial and those issues are not prominent, Wilson's success may depend on whether he receives credit for California's blessings or blame for its problems.

Indeed, even as Wilson prepares a five-day national tour--starting Monday in New York--to symbolically kick off his campaign, critics from both parties in California are making their own travel plans--dispatching "truth squads" nationwide to counter the governor's story and put their own spin on his record.

Wilson, for his part, intends to cast his California record as a GOP-style success story about a state that emerged from recession and natural disasters by sharply cutting the size of government. Trying to capitalize on the nation's anti-Washington mood, he touts himself as the antidote to government gridlock, based partly on his success in persuading a Democrat-controlled Legislature to pass large spending reductions.

Wilson boasts that today's state budget is almost $20 billion less this year than a bipartisan commission estimated in 1990 it would be. And for the last three years, the state has generated an operating surplus by spending less than it has received in revenues.

"Friends, if we can do it in America's largest state . . . why can't they do it in Washington?" Wilson asked in his New Hampshire speech. "Frankly, I am the only candidate who can show you not just a chart, but a record that shows that he has actually done it."

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But Wilson has not won the hearts of many Californians who should be the beneficiaries of his success as a governor. Polls show that many Californians are unhappy with his performance. In the Legislature, he has not only provoked hostility from Democrats but also from about 20 Republicans who have endorsed a rival presidential candidate, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. And there are plenty of difficulties facing California that his critics can raise.

Since Wilson became governor, the state's credit rating has dropped and its unemployment rate has remained above the national average. Los Angeles and Orange counties are suffering financial crises. Education test scores are below academic standards. And as the welfare roles soar, there has been a net loss of jobs.

His rivals in the GOP race, meanwhile, have already promised to highlight his controversial decision in 1991 to raise state taxes. Wilson critics complain that it was the wrong policy during a recession and that it broke a campaign promise he made during his 1990 bid for the governor's mansion.

Wilson tried to head off this type of attack in Manchester last week, going before a bank of local media cameras to sign New Hampshire's famed "pledge," committing himself to oppose raising taxes as President. He also noted that while he supported a tax increase, his major opponents have as well.

Referring to legislation passed in 1982, Wilson said that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the front-runner in the GOP race, "authored and shepherded through the Congress what was then to become the largest tax increase in American history." Wilson added that the three other U.S. senators running for President--Gramm, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana--"all voted for it."

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