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Wilson Defiantly Rejects Lame Duck Limitations

Outlook: Governor's plans for final year include more education reform and ideas for easing water wars.


SACRAMENTO — After 32 consecutive years in public office, Gov. Pete Wilson is approaching what may be his last one with a bit of melancholy and a characteristic dose of defiance.

This is the time when an outgoing politician--forced from office by term limits--usually suffers a natural power drain. But Wilson insists that a lame duck is someone who has given up the fight.

"I think the lame duck effect is greatly exaggerated and somewhat self-inflicted," he told The Times. "I think we are doing good things that are going to change California's future. And that's what you get into this business to do."

Wilson's message is that he has big plans for next year.

He has already stepped onto the 1998 campaign trail by proposing a pair of ballot initiatives--one that would crack down on juvenile criminals and another that seeks to dismantle key parts of the state's education bureaucracy.

But in his traditional year-end interview, he suggested that there will be much more, including a broader package of education reforms, proposals for the state's increasingly tense water wars and even--he hinted--the possibility of another tax reduction, though he stopped short of proposing one.

"I'd love to propose another tax cut," he said. "If you've got an economy that is generating revenues--which ours is--then in fairness to the people who are paying those taxes as well as to be competitive [with other states], you need to change that [tax] structure so you don't set up a situation where the Legislature spends every damn dime that comes in."

In September, Wilson won legislative approval for a $1-billion tax cut package aimed primarily at middle-income families. At the time, he said the reduction would be adequate unless the economy continued its recent pattern of exceeding the state's forecast. Right now, however, revenues are falling short of predictions.

The governor declined to say whether he will propose a tax cut next year. As usual, he wants to save the details of his 1998 agenda for the post-holiday period leading up to his State of the State speech Jan. 7.

Instead, the year-end interview traditionally is a reflective sort of temperature-taking.

Wilson is wrapping up what is probably the best year he has ever had as governor. The state economy is humming, his popularity is rising and all sides consider the last legislative session to be one of the most productive in years.

Largely due to Wilson's design and pressure, lawmakers passed the tax cut and a historic overhaul of the state's welfare system, and they continued a comprehensive reform of public schools that included another reduction in classroom sizes and a new mandatory test for students.

Wilson confessed that he sees an unfortunate double edge to the term limits law, which he--nonetheless--still supports. "My greatest disappointment is not having four more years," he said. "I'd love to have another term."

These days, Wilson is finalizing decisions on the eighth and last state budget that he will introduce on Jan. 9. The interview Monday night was delayed nearly an hour while the governor and his top advisors considered a last-minute decision on a particular $60-million allocation.

Afterward, Wilson relaxed in his office, where the reception desk was crowded with stacks of Christmas-wrapped boxes, a donated crate of holiday oranges and a well-wisher's jar of California pistachios. He shared a specialty beer called Pale Rider, a gift from supporter Clint Eastwood, which prompted a movie trivia question that sent Wilson searching for his Hollywood encyclopedias for information on Eastwood's 1969 movie, "Paint Your Wagon."

Talking about his future, Wilson said he is certainly not ready for retirement but is unsure what he will do. He is considering a variety of public platforms, such as being a commentator, serving as a nonprofit group organizer or joining a think tank, he said.

At the same time, he repeated his desire to make a second bid for the White House in 2000.

"Would I like to pursue that?" he asked. "As you know, I would. The question frankly is whether or not it is going to be possible to do it, and that turns entirely upon money."

Wilson declined to speculate about the timing or likelihood of such a decision.

He said he believes that the education reforms of recent years will be, perhaps, the most significant achievement in his legacy as governor. Wilson suggested that when he leaves office he might form a nonprofit "vehicle for people of like minds to support educational efforts."

He also promised that education will continue to be one of his top priorities in the coming year--just as it will be for the candidates seeking to replace him.

Wilson's proposed education initiative--which is in the signature-gathering phase to qualify for the November ballot--would create parent-controlled boards at each school. The boards would make decisions about curriculum and spending.

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