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California and the West

Congress Faces Busy Agenda With Much at Stake for State

Government: From HMO reforms to a six-year transit funding plan, key decisions await lawmakers during an election year.

January 26, 1998|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Even as Congress returns to work this week in a city obsessed with the alleged sexual misadventures of the president, some of the biggest policy issues of the end of the century are on the congressional plate, and California has more at stake than perhaps any other state.

From the way we receive our medical care to the conditions of highways and the status of Asia's economy, the 105th Congress is set to take up issues large and small that are of considerable importance to the nation's most populous state.

Also, since Congress adjourned in November, a federal budget surplus is suddenly at hand, portending a free-for-all by states eager to get a handout as Congress loosens its belt.

All this will come up in an election year, when every member of the House and one of California's senators--Democrat Barbara Boxer--are on the ballot. So it remains to be seen whether the greater good of the state will be served or pushed to the side by partisan politics and electioneering, experts said.

"This could be a watershed year for California," said Tim Ransdell, executive director of the California Institute, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on state issues. "There are plenty of reasons to watch out for the needs of the state as Congress takes up several important issues, but whether that notion stands up in an election year--that's the $64,000 question."

Of all the issues on Congress' mind this year, few affect car-worshiping, transit-deficient California more profoundly than transportation. The massive six-year spending bill that funds building and improvement of the nation's roads and rails expired last year, with Congress unable to agree on how to divvy up an enormous pot of federal money into the next century.

Lawmakers will be slugging it out to get California at least as great a share of the pot as before, if not greater. The state received 10.7% of a nearly $80-billion pot of highway money between 1992-95. The next available pot of money could amount to about $20 million a year over the next six years.

But complicating matters is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's recent suspension of work on two legs of Los Angeles' $300-million-per-mile subway and an aboveground light-rail line between Los Angeles and Pasadena.

Under the current formula, about a fourth of California's federal transit money went to the MTA, but Congress is always reluctant to spend for a project considered to be in disarray. And the state does not have any heavy hitters sitting on the House committees that will decide the transportation future.

"The Transportation Committee members California has are really junior, and because of that, California is really in a defensive mode," Ransdell said.

Fate has caused a previously obscure California environmental issue to zoom to the top of the congressional agenda--restoration of the Salton Sea--a cause championed by the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Palm Springs), who died in a skiing accident this month. Completing the environmental cleanup of the state's largest body of water has the endorsement of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and probably will pass as a tribute to Bono.

Congress already approved $6 million to restore the sea and "that amount is expected to go up significantly," said Dave LesStrang, press secretary to Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands). "It will be a very high-profile issue, a legacy bill."

Many of the most sweeping issues Congress intends to consider, including Social Security, Medicare, child care expansion and reform of the managed health care system, could affect California greatly because of its sheer size.

As the most populous state, California ranks first in nearly every demographic category, with more elderly people, more young people and more people in managed care than any other state. So whatever Congress decides on these social programs is bound to be felt profoundly.

Managed care is likely to stand out among this year's issues. President Clinton has proposed a health care "Consumer Bill of Rights," and congressional Democrats plan to make HMO-bashing a populist cry this election year.

But Washington may be watching California more than the other way around as the state forms a new agency to oversee HMOs and improve patient care. More than 70% of Californians are in managed care, compared to about 45% of people nationwide. And while about 14% of Medicare beneficiaries are in HMOs nationally, the number zooms to about 30% in California and 40% in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Although the immigration reform fever that gripped Congress the last few years has quieted for now, some lawmakers will continue to press for federal reimbursement for the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants.

And there will be efforts to fine-tune the implementation of the government's new immigration policies--most prominently an effort to restore food stamps to legal immigrants and their families. The administration has signaled that it intends to push for this.

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