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Wilson to Seek Public's Support of Welfare Plan

Aid: Governor takes the initiative as Democrats fail to reach an early consensus on reform proposals.

March 18, 1997|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson is taking advantage of the Democrats' lack of an early consensus on welfare reform by trying to boost his own proposal with a major public relations effort.

His plan for a series of public events throughout the state this month marks one of the first attempts to force the welfare debate into the political arena, where Republicans sense an advantage.

It also rattles the tender hopes for bipartisan cooperation just as the Democrat-controlled Legislature approaches the final seven weeks before its own deadline to produce a welfare reform plan.

"We are sending a message that we are willing to fight to win support for our plan," said Sean Walsh, Wilson's deputy chief of staff. "We are more organized and more disciplined on this welfare bill than many other issues because it is an important piece of legislation that will have an impact for many generations."

Wilson's effort comes as Democrats are out of public view on welfare, hunkered down in committee hearings and work group sessions aimed at producing an alternative plan by May 1.

They are also operating under increasing pressure because months have passed with little indication of where Democratic leaders will fall on some major issues such as welfare time limits and work requirements.

Wilson officials believe the situation has left them with an opportunity. The governor's schedule, as described in an internal memo titled "Welfare Reform Marketing," calls for Wilson to make at least four public appearances around the state this month.

He will also announce the creation of two welfare reform task forces consisting of state leaders and business representatives. The groups will be asked to make recommendations on how the state can create jobs for welfare recipients.

Meanwhile, Health and Welfare Secretary Sandra Smoley and Social Services Director Eloise Anderson are continuing their efforts to meet newspaper editorial boards, seek key endorsements and build a community of grass-roots supporters.

"This sounds like the shot over the bow to say that they are going to be partisan," said Pat Leery, a Democrat consultant to the Senate Budget Committee. "At this point, there has not been the same amount of partisanship from our side."

In January, the governor placed his controversial welfare overhaul before the Legislature. It would limit recipients to one year of benefit checks out of every two--half the time allowed by the new federal legislation. It would also require recipients to work up to 35 hours per week for their check.

Some of Wilson's critics suggest that the governor's statewide campaign is aimed at boosting his own sagging popularity at least as much as that of his welfare reform plan.

They add that his heartless image--left over from campaigns against illegal immigration and affirmative action--could make him a poor ambassador for a welfare plan that makes tough new demands on the poor.

But Republicans also sense that the public is behind their effort to toughen the state's welfare system and transform it into a jobs program.

And although most Democrats support a similar transition, they also expect that their calls for a more compassionate welfare system could be pitted against Republican demands for personal responsibility from the poor.

Democrats have blasted Wilson's one-year time limit. Some members have also talked about hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funds for benefits, work training and child care. And they have criticized Wilson's plan to lift a mandate requiring that counties operate General Relief--a welfare program for able-bodied, single adults.

Politically, however, Democrats worry about the difficulty of trying to win public support for a welfare plan that is more lenient and costly than the Republican version.

"Right away, the first thing that happens is the conservative side of our caucuses collapse--they can't take the heat from home," Senate Leader Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) said recently. "Obviously, the weakest negotiating position for the Democrats is to be [in Sacramento] in July fighting over welfare."

To avoid such a high-stakes political showdown, Lockyer and Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante would like to resolve the welfare legislation before the Legislature faces a debate over the budget in June.

If the two issues become tangled, legislators fear, there could be a politically costly stalemate that could stretch into the summer because neither party has the votes to pass a budget or a welfare plan without the other.

"I believe we have enough time to work out problems between now and [June]," Bustamante told reporters this week. He added, however, that he instructed the caucus: "If Democrats have to fall on their sword because of principle, we should always be willing to do that."

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