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The Big Catch-Up Begins

May 16, 1999

Not so long ago, California was the national leader in public endeavor--education, transportation, parks, protecting the environment and caring for the needy. Today, after more than two decades of lagging investment in the state's future, California must play catch-up.

A solid start is being made under a revised state budget released Friday by Gov. Gray Davis, who should be commended for devoting much of the $4.35 billion in unanticipated extra revenue to building and repairing the state facilities that he correctly describes as "the underpinnings of our society." Democratic leaders in the Legislature will have their own priorities as the budget moves through the Senate and Assembly. But they should recognize that Davis' allocations generally are the correct ones.

The governor introduced a preliminary $78-billion budget in January, but final decisions had to wait until this month, when the state Finance Department got a more accurate fix on revenues, based largely on income tax returns received in April. With the economy running full bore, the May revisions the past three years have produced bountiful surpluses. The issue is how to invest them.

In major spending areas, Davis would put the new money toward better commuter train service, vitally needed school facilities, safety programs and other highly visible and important programs. Much of the onetime bonanza would go to onetime projects and not commit the state to year-to-year spending. Davis set aside nearly $1 billion as an emergency reserve against the day when the economy cools off.

Assembly Republicans want more big tax cuts, but Davis chose a more modest path with selective tax relief for small businesses. Californians have pocketed tax reductions the past several years. Davis' investment in California's future, including its economic strength, is the more critical need now.

Education is everyone's top priority, and Davis appropriately added $1.2 billion to the education budget, including $144 million for new textbooks, $144 million for deferred maintenance and $100 million for school safety programs, including new counselors for every high school.

An additional $1 billion would go to statewide maintenance and construction, including $425 million into the state Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank, which will provide matching funds for critical local government projects. For long-overdue maintenance in the state park system, $157 million is set aside. The parks should get even more because the backlog of work and needed land purchases is running as high as $600 million.

In the law enforcement area, the governor proposed $355 million for a new maximum-security prison, an unexpected commitment that might trigger tough negotiations with those Democrats in the Legislature who support alternative punishment for nonviolent offenders.

Davis wants the Legislature to pass the budget by June 15, which seems absurdly unrealistic considering the recent budget deadlocks that have run beyond July 1, the legal deadline, and well into the succeeding fiscal year.

Republicans and Democrats seem bound to lock horns on the tax cut issue. Considering recent political history in Sacramento and Washington, pressing the tax issue could be a losing strategy for the GOP. What the voters want and deserve is a realistic budget on the legislative floor by June, not another drawn-out battle over tax cuts at the expense of schools, parks and highways. Gov. Davis has delivered sensible priorities.

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