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Election 2002 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Bleak Political Landscape Awaits Governor

He will have difficulty claiming a mandate, and inherits a looming budget shortfall that most experts predict will easily top $10 billion.

November 06, 2002|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

With their attention focused on attacking one another, Gov. Gray Davis and his Republican challenger, Bill Simon Jr., paid scant attention to laying out an agenda for running the state.

Now the winner -- whether Simon or the Democratic incumbent -- faces a bleak political landscape. Since both campaigned without much of a platform, the winner will have difficulty claiming a mandate, particularly given that so many of those who cast ballots Tuesday did so with reservations about the candidates.

The winner of the race begins by inheriting the state's fiscal mess -- a looming budget shortfall that most experts predict will easily top $10 billion. He will soon be forced to choose between raising taxes or cutting billions of dollars in spending, much of it on popular programs.

Either candidate is certain to face fierce resistance in the Legislature, both from Republicans who refuse to raise taxes and Democrats who oppose program cuts.

But the battle over state money is only the most visible of the governor's expected difficulties in working with a polarized Legislature that became even more so in Tuesday's election.

Among the state's biggest problems are substandard public schools, overcrowded freeways and uncertain water supplies. California also continues to feel the aftereffects of last year's energy crisis.

In his campaign for reelection, Davis offered little in the way of an agenda he could use to advance in his second term. To win, he focused mainly on tearing down Simon with television ads depicting him as an untrustworthy and incompetent businessman.

In spots promoting himself, Davis looked backward, boasting of higher school test scores, more health coverage for children and other first-term accomplishments. It was only at the end of the race that Davis ran an ad promising to pursue more of the same in his second term.

"I don't know that we've even had a clear message from him on what he wants to do for the next four years other than continuing the things he's done so far," said Larry N. Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.

Simon laid out vague plans for tax cuts, better schools and improvements in the road, water and power systems. But Simon would face a Legislature overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats deeply hostile to a candidate who campaigned as a "conservative Republican."

For any new programs, the governor will be hamstrung by the state's dismal fiscal outlook. This year, it was only after a two-month political stalemate that Davis and the Legislature closed a record budget gap of nearly $24 billion.

Next year could be worse. For now, the state's revenue shortfall is projected at more than $10 billion, but analysts expect it to grow. A projected economic turnaround has not occurred. And the fiscal tricks used last year to balance the books -- spending postponement, fund transfers and the like -- now are just about exhausted, making a tax hike or big spending cuts all but inevitable.

Tuesday's results were only likely to further hobble the governor as he confronts that issue. A ballot initiative to expand before- and after-school programs -- at a cost of up to $550 million a year -- was leading in early returns and could further constrain the state's options for balancing the budget.

Over the course of the campaign, both candidates refused to say how they would resolve the crisis. Simon promised to shrink state government and pledged not to raise taxes. But he was careful not to rule out any hike in university tuition, park entrance fees or other charges that Californians pay.

With Davis, Gerston said the outcome was easy to predict: "He's going to preside over the largest tax increase in recent memory. This has to be the worst-kept secret in the world."

Conservatives in the Legislature, however, have no political reason to let the governor do that.

In several districts around the state, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans defeated moderate opponents in the March primary, then went on to win the election Tuesday.

The deepening polarization of the Legislature is the result in part of a redistricting plan -- approved by representatives of both parties -- that created more solidly partisan districts, making it possible for more ideological candidates to prevail.

That leaves liberals prepared to fight to protect programs and conservatives ready to battle against tax hikes.

Democrats retain a solid majority in both houses of the Legislature, but the budget requires a two-thirds vote, so a handful of Republicans must consent to any tax hike.

"Republicans are not going to sit still for a tax increase," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political science professor at USC. "They don't have to."

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