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The New Power in Sacramento

May 18, 1997|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

SACRAMENTO — The buzz around Sacramento is that California could be closer than it has been in a while to having a spending plan in place by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

Yes, California's economy is perking along--and that makes everything easier. Gov. Pete Wilson's May budget revision, which marks the beginning of serious negotiations between the governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature, takes advantage of nearly $2 billion in unexpected revenues. Although most of this new money goes to education under terms of Proposition 98, there is still about $1 billion to spread among other programs. How, where and why that money will be spent are keys to understanding this year's budget politics.

For days before the new figures were released, Wilson peppered the media (and his Democratic opponents in the Legislature) with "May revise good news." He trumpeted spending increases for welfare-related child care and job-training programs, his popular class size-reduction initiative, education testing and local government aid. These issues define a budget specially crafted for Inland California, a high-growth region that pollster Paul Maslin says includes "every county not bordering the Pacific Ocean or the San Francisco Bay." Home to socially conservative and anti-government swing voters, soccer moms and younger families looking for safety, decent schools and affordable housing, these inland counties have grown in political clout. Meanwhile, the populations of former powerhouses like Los Angeles and the Bay Area have remained virtually stagnant or declined and their demographics have changed.

This power shift explains why Democrats are treading cautiously on welfare reform, which had long been predicted to be a major sticking point in budget negotiations. The debate still could get nasty. A possible hitch is Wilson's disagreement with legislative Democrats over time limits (the Democrats want longer ones) and work requirements for aid recipients (the Democrats want looser ones). One Senate insider acknowledged that some in the Democratic caucus "want to go to the mat over time limits" but, he added, the budget ultimately will fly, because "there's a point at which public opinion is overwhelming on the other side." Democrats want welfare off the table before next year's elections.

Republicans have carefully constructed their proposals around the needs of children, softening their harsh rhetoric, which cost them dearly among ethnic voters and suburban women in 1996. The GOP wants a kinder, gentler image for 1998--and Wilson is leading the way.

The bottom line is that both parties have ample reasons to finesse the issue of welfare reform, and the budget windfall will help them do that--for now.

Any budget that sells in Inland California can resonate on the national hustings, too. Beyond Wilson's obvious stab at shaping a positive legacy, he could also use this budget to build a presidential platform.

"Picture this," said one annoyed Capitol wag. "Pete Wilson in Iowa and New Hampshire bragging 'I ended welfare as we know it in California; I can do it for you. I turned education around in California; I can do it for you.' " Some Wilsonites are picturing that, too--but without annoyance.

Despite steps toward adopting a budget, a clash of political agendas and an uncertain and unstable political environment have made it almost inevitable that little else of any substance is getting done in Sacramento.

The Legislature's natural tendency is to let things go till the last minute. It happens every year. But this time, there's more to legislative inertia.

The Assembly is routinely derided around the Capitol as "dysfunctional." For one newly hired staffer, a veteran of Washington's wars, the scene is "like driving the 405." Chaos and gridlock. And, yes, the major culprit appears to be term limits.

More than one-third of Assembly members are freshmen. Virtually the entire remainder have been elected since 1992. Many are still learning how the place works; they are not yet up to speed on complex issues and procedures. Nonetheless, some have already been thrust into leadership positions. With little opportunity to learn the rules or establish trust among the players, they're floundering.

The uncertainty surrounding the recent appellate-court ruling overturning legislative term limits only makes things worse. The consensus here is that the stay placed on the ruling, pending further appeal, will remain in effect for the 1998 elections. That would mean another wave of departures, including Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante's and Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer's.

The budget scenario shows how the deck can be stacked against weakened, short-term legislative leadership by a governor who is back on his game and who knows more about how it's played than most of his opponents--and his allies.

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