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Local Officials Assail Wilson's Tax Cut Plan

June 20, 1998|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Top county, school and union leaders on Friday renewed their sharp criticism of Gov. Pete Wilson's push to slash the state's vehicle license fee, which they say will devastate funding for schools and local government services.

Wilson is pursuing a "car tax" cut, which would reduce the average $185 fee motorists pay each year to register their cars, in the midst of a $4.4-billion state budget surplus.

He argues that much of that tax, increased substantially during California's recession earlier this decade, should be returned as the economy continues to improve.

Local officials have assailed Wilson for championing a tax break over the needs of local governments that contributed $3 billion to help the state weather the recession.

"That money is local government's money--for our police, for our fire, for our schools, for our public works," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told a news conference at Erwin Street Elementary School in Van Nuys.

"This proposal to reduce the vehicle license fee is a bait and switch proposal . . . to not invest in the local governments and schools of our state, which have been beaten this decade more than any other level of government," he added.

The governor wants to slash the car fee by 75% within five years, eventually handing $3.6 billion back to taxpayers.

The local leaders' statements, launching what they described as a statewide campaign to derail Wilson's proposal, came one day after the release of a report by the independent Legislative Analyst's Office warning that such a cut could lead to annual budget deficits of almost $850 million by the turn of the century, a finding the Wilson administration disputes.

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Wilson's plan would replace the lost car tax money--which by law goes to city and county governments--by tapping the state's general fund. School officials, whose budgets rely largely on revenues from the state's general fund, predicted that would be disastrous for schools across California, which already ranks 37th in the nation in per-pupil spending.

"For every person who receives a rebate on their vehicle license fee, a book could be purchased for a student," said Julie Korenstein, president of the Los Angeles Board of Education. "I appeal to the governor, don't do this to the children of California."

Korenstein was joined by Day Higuchi, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles.

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The leaders held their news conference in the school library, surrounded by tattered and frayed books, some more than 60 years old. They brought along two high-profile speakers to argue their cause--the coach and one of the members of the El Camino Real High School academic decathlon team, which won the national title earlier this year.

"I'm one of the people this bill is going to affect," said Adi Zarchi, an El Camino senior and team member. "Take it from me, it's not very easy to learn trigonometry when there are 40 kids in classrooms with no air conditioning."

Wilson spokesman Ron Low said the governor wants to devote $500 million of the state surplus to education, in addition to the base funding provided for schools by state law.

"Education is the top priority of the Wilson administration," Low said. "The governor has led an educational renaissance in California. This budget once again shows that."

Yaroslavsky and Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke plan to lobby officials in Sacramento on Monday. Yaroslavsky said other officials across the state--including Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown--will be adding their voices to the campaign.

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