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Lawmakers Still Pushing Pet Projects

Budget: 'Pork' spending scores political points. But the state, with a $23-billion deficit, may not be able to afford a trade office in Armenia.


SACRAMENTO — Not even the prospect of a $23.6-billion deficit and deep program cuts has kept lawmakers from pushing their own pet projects as negotiations get underway on a new state budget.

Scattered throughout the 400-page working version of the 2002-03 spending plan are proposals to open a foreign trade office in Armenia, to forgive a $2.2-million loan to the city of Millbrae and to give Children's Hospital of San Diego a $150,000 budget cushion.

At the Capitol, such "pork projects" have historically constituted a small but politically important part of the state budget. Lawmakers covet such gems--particularly in election years--as evidence of their success in Sacramento.

For the last few years, legislators have filled thick binders with hundreds of pages detailing their "member's request" pet projects. This year, facing the task of closing an enormous budget gap, they skipped the process.

Nonetheless, an array of proposals that at best do nothing to help get the state out of the red have found their way onto the agenda of the legislative committee negotiating the budget, much to the dismay of some committee members.

"We all care about our districts, but when the state as a whole is having the trouble it's having, that needs to come before a specific special interest in one's district," said Assemblyman John Campbell, the Irvine Republican who handles budget matters for his caucus.

Added state Sen. Richard Ackerman, another Irvine Republican and Campbell's counterpart in the upper house: "Some of them are hard to find this year. They're buried pretty good."

One of the first items to grab Ackerman's attention was a proposal for the state to forgive the $2.2-million loan to Millbrae for flood-damage repair.

"We believe this is a 'member's request,' " Ackerman said during a meeting of the budget conference committee.

Betty Yee, chief deputy director of the state Department of Finance, warned the committee that forgiving the loan could set a precedent. The committee rejected the proposal.

Shortly afterward, however, Assemblyman Lou Papan, the Democrat who represents Millbrae, showed up in the committee hearing room and stared down members until Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon), chairman of the six-member budget conference committee, which consists of Republicans and Democrats from both houses, announced that the item would be placed on a list for reconsideration.

Later came an item dear to Peace that would establish a supplemental payment rate--$150,000 in aid--for Children's Hospital of San Diego to help cover costs in the facility's long-term care unit.

Ackerman weighed in, noting that his caucus had flagged the item as a "member's request." Yee also warned against treating one hospital differently from the rest.

"I obviously support this request," Peace said. "It's a San Diego request."

Peace reluctantly recommended that the committee approve Senate language that did not include the $150,000 for the hospital.

"There's nothing I like more than going back to San Diego and saying that we can't give them $150,000," Peace said sarcastically. "But we can't."

A proposal to spend $149,000 to open a foreign trade office in Armenia also raised eyebrows. The idea appears in legislation by Sen. Jack Scott, the Altadena Democrat who represents Glendale. Roughly one-third of the city's 190,000 residents are of Armenian descent.

Sacramento trade analyst Jock O'Connell described the proposal as bizarre.

"The country has the economy roughly the size of the Arden Fair mall," said O'Connell, referring to a Sacramento area shopping center.

O'Connell said money for trade offices would be better spent on the state's export finance program, which encourages commercial banks to finance export transactions by small and medium-sized California businesses.

Doug Stone, a spokesman for Scott, took issue with O'Connell's mall remark, saying Armenia's economy is growing at an average annual rate of 7%. Stone contends that the country could serve as a viable, expanding trade market for California.

When the item came up for consideration last week, Assembly Budget Committee Chairwoman Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach) said it would be inconsistent to open a new trade office given that the Assembly has proposed eliminating all funds for such offices. The committee took Oropeza's lead and did not approve the request.

While she opposed Scott's request, Oropeza pushed for $150,000 to distribute "human rights and genocide model curriculum" to "appropriate middle and high school teachers" statewide. Peace warned Oropeza that she could be opening a can of worms.

"If we start down this path, it's multiplied by 120 every time we do it," he said, referring to the number of state lawmakers.

Committee members failed to reach a consensus on the issue last week and it remains open to debate.

Lawmakers drew a line at spending $927,000 on a program called Fishing in the City, which Oropeza also championed during a hearing. Ackerman questioned whether this was a member's request, and was told that all cities could apply for the money.

After the committee voted not to fund the program, a disappointed Oropeza remarked on all the city children who would not get to fish. Peace, putting a lighter spin on the outcome, replied: "Look at all the fish we saved."

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