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Why State's New Budget Almost Arrived on Time

July 14, 1996|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

When California made political history by electing two female U.S. senators in 1992, it was dubbed the "Year of the Woman." Two years later, it was the "Revenge of the Angry White Male" when state voters gave Gov. Pete Wilson a come-from-behind victory over Democrat Kathleen Brown and the Republican Party gained control of the Assembly. And 1996?

Given the political maneuvering surrounding the adoption of this year's state budget, this might be called the year of "Married With Children." Up and down the ballot, elections are being fought in "the middle" and for the hearts and souls of parents.

Nationally, married voters account for about two-thirds of the electorate. They tend to lean Republican. According to surveys by the Center of Political Studies at the University of Michigan, the Democratic presidential nominee has not carried a majority of married voters since 1964.

Data from the Field Institute indicate that voters with "children in the household" make up 30%-35% of the California electorate. They tend to be middle-aged, suburban and, especially in Southern California, swing voters. Among them are moderate Republican women, the constituency that handed the Democrats their 1992 victory, then ceded 1994 to their own party.

For these voters, family-oriented issues, such as education and teen smoking, resonate. President Bill Clinton and national Democrats have seized upon these concerns to upstage Republicans on family values. In California, it is Wilson and some GOP legislators who want to appropriate them and thereby move their party closer to the center.

Such a political dynamic explains the relatively benign negotiations on the 1996-97 $63-billion state budget. A mere week after the start of the fiscal year, the spending plan passed the Democratic-controlled Senate by a wide margin. It attracted support from senators who had never before voted to approve a budget, including Robert S. Hurtt Jr. (R-Garden Grove), the GOP leader.

Yes, Democratic lawmakers and the governor exchanged some harsh words. But little legislative blood was spilled, at least over the issue of education funding. Both parties showered schools with money and attention. Wilson suddenly became "the education governor" he had promised to be when he first took office in 1991. In addition, for the first time in five years, the budget fully funded California's anti-smoking programs, established by voter-approved Proposition 99 in 1988.

This largess certainly had something to do with the state's economic recovery. The economy's uptick added $2.6 billion more to the treasury than originally estimated. By law, 40% of state revenues must be spent on schools.

Still, budget writers agreed to scale back spending for new prisons, a continuing GOP priority. When Wilson was forced to retreat from his 15% tax cut, he moved to bestow even more money on schools. (This year's appropriation amounts to a record $28 billion.)

Although crime and taxes still count in California politics, these budget maneuvers suggest that education, as an issue, may be achieving parity with them.

In part, Wilson grasped education to neutralize a $2.3-million TV ad campaign financed by the California Teachers Assn. A staunch Democratic ally, the CTA used the ads to heighten public awareness of the state's oversized classes and pressure the governor to come up with the money to reduce them. The governor also wants to leave a legacy before he's term-limited in 1998, and education holds great promise in that regard.

Tobacco is another issue that has married-with-children ramifications. Wilson's shift on diverting Proposition 99 funds followed ads, generated by anti-smoking groups, that attacked the governor as a tobacco "industry stooge." He was hurt by a leaked memo in which Wilson was described by an industry lobbyist as "pro-tobacco." (Both charges were disputed by the governor's office.)

Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) also was attacked for being too cozy with tobacco interests and too accepting of cigarette-industry money. An ad by anti-smoking groups featured a public-opinion poll, done for them, showing that 55% of Californians are less likely to vote for a politician who accepts tobacco-industry contributions. The same ad taunted Pringle as "the next Willie Brown."

Before Brown left the Legislature to run successfully for mayor of San Francisco, he ranked as the state's top recipient of tobacco-industry campaign contributions. A newspaper also recently reported that Brown "raised more tobacco-company money [last year] than any other politician in the country," outdistancing Sen. Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina). But as mayor of San Francisco, Brown has agreed to a city lawsuit against tobacco firms to recover the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses. While Pringle didn't take the whole page from the former Assembly speaker's book, the new speaker did back off from trying to restrict how Proposition 99's cigarette-tax money could be used.

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