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For University Lobbyists, Next Target Is Wilson

Education: Legislators hope to keep the momentum going after Cal State trustees' approval of a local campus.

September 21, 1997|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMARILLO — The night before a unanimous vote to establish a Cal State University campus in Ventura County, local legislators were hard at work behind the scenes, paving the way for the historic decision.

At a dinner party hosted by university system Chancellor Barry Munitz, the lawmakers rubbed elbows with Cal State trustees, taking advantage of an orchestrated opportunity to drive home the importance of the vote they were about to cast.

Over a simple menu of shrimp and salad, they told trustees how Ventura County was desperately in need of a public four-year university, and how generations of students had plowed into an educational dead end for lack of a local college.

"We were able to work the crowd, I guess you would say," said Assemblyman Nao Takasugi, who was on hand Wednesday as trustees agreed to take over the state hospital in Camarillo as the first crucial step to launching a Cal State campus.

"I had the sense we were going to get very solid support, but it never hurts to lobby," the Oxnard Republican added. "There was a lot of preparation that went into this, and I think we saw that pay off."

Indeed, after months of starchy questions from some trustees at earlier meetings, the 24-member Cal State governing board voted without debate to take control of the now-shuttered state hospital and convert it into the new home for the Ventura campus of Cal State Northridge.

The plan is to expand the curriculum and boost enrollment during the next half-dozen years so the campus can stand on its own as an independent four-year university, to be called Cal State Channel Islands.

Now Ventura County legislators will shift their elbow-rubbing efforts to Sacramento, where Gov. Pete Wilson holds the key to pushing forward with the conversion project.

In coming months, the Legislature is expected to ask Wilson to earmark $6.5 million in the fiscal 1998-99 budget to operate the Camarillo campus and transform a number of its Spanish-style buildings into classrooms and administrative offices.

"We need to continue this momentum," said state Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), chairman of the Senate's budget subcommittee on education. "I'm going to be active this fall doing just that, lining up additional support and making sure the governor knows our needs."

Some of that support may be hard in coming.

State Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) said she has concerns about how the project will be financed, and worries that the county will be forced to foot the bill to widen roadways and pay for other improvements needed to bring the campus on line.

Moreover, Wright said she remains bitter about the decision to close Camarillo State Hospital, a move that opened the door to transforming the property into the university system's 23rd campus.

Yet Wright said she will not stand in the way of the project, although she said she cannot in good conscience throw her full support behind the current effort.

"I've always wanted the university, no doubt about it, but I didn't want to have to take from someone else to deliver it," Wright said. "I would never vote against the university, I just don't know that I could go out and lobby on behalf of it."

The lobbying effort during the next few months will be key as Cal State planners piece together a proposal for the governor's review, administration officials said.

The proposal will detail academic strategies, construction projects and an effort to develop a range of income-generating ventures to help the campus pay its own way.

"You couldn't ask for a more promising development at this stage," said Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the Wilson administration. "The governor has said he favors the concept of the campus. But as they say, the devil is always in the details. That's why the next few months of putting together all the pieces is so important."

Still, Ventura County lawmakers are confident that Wilson will include the start-up money in next year's budget.

They point out that Wilson stands to become the first governor since Edmund G. Brown Sr. to launch more than one Cal State campus during his tenure. Wilson founded Cal State Monterey Bay in 1994, and the Camarillo campus is scheduled to open in early 1999.

"The fact that he could be standing out at that site, cutting a yellow ribbon, has got to be a reality for him," said Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, a Los Olivos Republican and friend of the governor.

"I don't think there's any question that he will approve it," Firestone continued. "In the meantime, it's our responsibility to keep this issue in front of everybody and talk it up at every opportunity."

The issue now becomes how to pay the $25 million to $30 million start-up cost to open the Northridge satellite campus at the Camarillo site.

Already Cal State planners have shaved millions off the original construction costs of converting the 60-year-old psychiatric facility into a college campus.

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