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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL / GEORGE
SKELTON

It Ain't Over Till Pete Says So

July 06, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — This is his last at-bat and Pete Wilson won't be going down with the stick on his shoulder. Neither will he be swinging at just any ol' offering. He'll be waiting for his pitch. Even if it takes all summer.

Oh, yes, Gov. Pete Wilson. He's still here. You're bored with the guy? He's no longer relevant? What else can he do?

He can--and will--be deciding sometime this summer just what kind of tax cut you'll be getting. And there will be a tax cut. Wilson already has seen to that.

Democratic leaders last week gave in to the Republican governor and agreed to cut taxes. The battle over size and type may take weeks.

Democrats have offered a $1-billion cut. They're proposing a one-year, quarter-cent trimming of the sales tax, although that's mostly Senate leader John Burton's idea. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa privately prefers an income tax cut. But neither wants a permanent tax cut. This economic boom may be short-lived, they argue; the projected $4.4-billion budget surplus may be a one-time aberration.

"One-time surplus my ass," Wilson says. "It isn't one-time. I can't find an economic forecaster anywhere who thinks so. . . . The economy will continue to pile up these surpluses as long as Californians are overtaxed."

Democrats--even many business execs--also argue that now's the time to invest in schools and crumbling infrastructure; just drive around California and be jarred by all the potholes.

Wilson counters that he's already proposing $500 million more for K-12 schools than legally required. (Democrats want $1 billion). And "potholes are local," he says. "You don't want to get us in the business of plugging every local deficiency."

The governor is pushing a permanent 75% cut in the car tax. It would be phased in over two years and ultimately cost the state $3.6 billion annually.

But listen closely to the governor and you hear faint flexibility along with the feistiness: "If they think they can come up with something better. . . ."

*

The nonstarters for Wilson--the pitches he won't be swinging at--are "any [tax cuts] that last for just six months or a year," he insists.

"I want to see a permanent tax cut. I want to see it in significant enough amounts so that we do not have the spenders spending the money simply because it is there. And that's exactly what this is all about. God, it's burning a hole in their pocket.

"I also think we ought to pick the kind of a tax cut that will really affect people in their daily lives. And, again, cars . . . a necessity."

Wilson needs a permanent tax cut of at least $1.5 billion to claim that, over his tenure, he reduced taxes more than he raised them, aides say. They're aiming for $2 billion. Democrats want to increase welfare grants and state employees' pay. There does seem room here for compromise.

"They [Democrats] think I am a pain in the ass because I am imposing constraints upon their spending," Wilson continues. "And they figure, 'OK, let's buy him off with what he wants for a year and then he's gone.' That isn't going to work."

Wilson feels he has little to lose. Term limits bar him from running for reelection, so--unlike legislators--he doesn't need to worry about getting bruised by budget gridlock. This is his last hurrah, the last chance to burnish a legacy; go for it.

"I was willing to sit here all summer when I did have to run," he notes, recalling past budget fights. "I'm not going to be outlasted."

*

If this were baseball, the count on Wilson would be 2-and-0. Democrats would have to come in with a pitch he could hit.

The advantage is with the governor: He has the line-item veto, which allows him to punish lawmakers by paring their pork. California also has a loony two-thirds vote requirement for budgets. This permits a Republican governor who is strongly allied with the GOP legislative minority to block budgets of the Democratic majority. And Wilson never has been more strongly allied with GOP lawmakers.

"The [state] Constitution affords me a considerable amount of power, which I am willing to exercise," he says with a smile.

Add to that a power vacuum created by an inexperienced Assembly and it means this governor is no lame duck. Not yet.

"Oh, hell, I've had a good time," Wilson told me. "I've had more fun at this job than anything I've done. I'll miss the job and I'll miss the people--even some legislators.

"And I'll miss Sacramento. The people are very friendly. . . . There are recreational offerings. The summers--apart from the budget--are delightful. There's a nice breeze off the Delta."

Good climate, he thinks, for a veteran slugger to hit one last home run.

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