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California and the West | Capitol Journal

The Effect of Empty Pockets on Ideology

May 17, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Pete Wilson must be so envious he can barely stand it, reading about Gray Davis and painfully playing "what if" games.

Just look at that new governor, the ex-governor must be thinking. He's basking in a big budget surplus of $4.3 billion and doling out money for such popular causes as education, crime-fighting and park repair--even some small tax cuts.

What if the situation had been reversed? What if he, Wilson, during his first year as governor, had been blessed with Davis-like riches instead of a record $14.3-billion deficit? What if he had not been forced to raise taxes by nearly $8 billion on everything from cars to candy and bottled water--while cutting back on higher education and health care?

What if in 1991 California hadn't been in a deep recession, but enjoying boom times as in 1999?

What if?

In my opinion, Wilson would have been a completely different governor and today would have a radically different image.

He would not immediately have been dragged into a bitter war with his own party over tax increases and thereafter felt a need to protect his right flank. He would have been more the centrist--on the environment, on health care, on gun control--that voters thought they had elected.

He would not have felt so threatened during his reelection campaign that he aggressively pushed Prop. 187, the illegal immigration initiative, with effective but insensitive TV ads. They keep coming. And Democrats and Davis could not have branded him the master of "wedge issue politics."

He would have been less combative and more conciliatory. And at budget time, less a hated Scrooge and more a lovable Santa Claus.

*

All this went through my mind last week as Davis proudly presented the "May revise" of his January budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The highlights were an additional $1 billion for K-12 schools and another $1 billion for public works. By contrast, the highlight of Wilson's first May revise was a whopping tax increase.

Leading up to Friday's public announcement, Davis engineered daily leaks to reporters to maximize the favorable news coverage of his largess. Unnamed "administration officials" dribbled out word that Davis would spend generously on school safety and construction projects, even likening him to the late, great Gov. Pat Brown.

Poor Wilson's big leak eight years ago was that he'd probably be raising the sales tax--an effort to cushion the blow of his formal announcement. It didn't work.

Ross Johnson, then the Assembly minority leader, complained of his fellow Republican governor: "He's trying to solve the budget problem the old-fashioned way--by reaching into the taxpayers' pockets." The governor's own floor leader refused to vote for the governor's budget.

Now, Johnson is a Republican floor leader again, this time in the Senate. And the Irvine conservative is getting along much better with Democrat Davis than he did with Wilson.

Wisely, Davis invited Johnson and Assembly Republican Leader Scott Baugh of Huntington Beach into his office last Thursday to hear their budget priorities. Many are similar to the governor's and the rest should be negotiable.

"The governor would be an excellent poker player," Johnson said afterward. "A poker player's always looking for 'tells' [in an opponent] and I wasn't seeing a lot of 'tells.' . . . He was polite and listened."

Commented Assemblyman Baugh: "Maybe he's a master at making like he agrees with you and then cutting you off at the knees, but I came away with a good feeling."

A good feeling. Eight years ago, some of the things Republicans and the governor were saying about each other were unprintable.

*

But Davis shouldn't get too cocky. Even a governor with "experience money can't buy" can screw up. And he did by not inviting in the legislative leaders of his own party to hear their priorities--or even to brief them about his revised $81-billion budget plan.

Reporters asked Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) whether he was angered by this slight--particularly by not being tipped that Davis wants to pay out $335 million in cash to build another prison. "Just surprised," he answered. "And everybody knows how I like surprises."

Burton also declared: "No budget will be rammed down our throats."

Well, now.

For starters, Burton and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) will demand more dollars for health care--a lot more than the additional $110 million Davis is proposing. After all, it's not like the state is hurting. The vault is overflowing.

Davis has many good options. Unlike Wilson, he became governor at the right time. In politics, timing is everything.

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