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Surrogates Just Won't Do; In Budget Crisis, the State Needs Davis to Lead

June 09, 2003|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO--The most comical scene in the Capitol this year was at Gov. Gray Davis' announcement of his May budget revision.

I mention this now because the episode was then -- and unfortunately continues to be -- indicative of the governor's dearth of leadership in the elusive search for an honest budget that's balanced and stanches the gushing of red ink.

The scene resembled cattle being loaded through a chute onto a cramped truck.

Here were 30 -- maybe 40 -- local officials, sheriffs, union leaders being herded single file onto a tiny stage behind the governor's podium to act as silent props during Davis' announcement. When there no longer was any place to stand and breathe, they spilled over into the news conference room with reporters.

The strategy was to show broad support for the governor's revised budget and, afterward, offer up these supporters for interviews.

What it showed me was that the governor didn't have enough self-confidence to stand up by himself. He felt a need to be backed up and buoyed by a crowd. Sometimes it helps to lean on a few supporters, certainly at a political rally.

But on this day, Davis was making one of his most important announcements of the year, laying out and trying to sell his plan for fixing the budget mess. Not just selling it to the Legislature -- which he isn't doing either -- but selling the public on $8.3 billion in unpopular but essential tax increases.

He needed to look gubernatorial. Stand up sturdily by himself, glare unflinchingly into the cameras and make his case. If I fired every state employee, that would save only $17 billion. We need $38 billion. We need more revenue.

Equally important, he needed -- still does -- to take his case to California's civic leaders, to places like L.A.'s Town Hall, San Francisco's Commonwealth Club, Chico's Rotary.

Shout the T-word. It's not just about taxes, it's about educating kids and caring for old people, investing in better highways....

A governor must do this personally. Surrogates have no soapbox nor listeners. Over the weekend, Davis sent 20 top appointees out across California to promote his budget. He stayed home in L.A. -- "standing by" for a possible call from legislative negotiators, said a spokesman.

To be fair, Davis has lobbied editorial boards and some interest groups. But he also has been spending inordinate time on non-budget matters -- surveying a bark beetle infestation, welcoming back National Guard troops, attending the groundbreaking of an Indian casino....

Fine, except the state is nearing financial collapse. Avoiding that should be a governor's full-time priority.

Davis should be blandishing and browbeating legislators. Like a governor. Cajoling, coercing, cracking heads -- all components of compromise. Legislative leaders say they mostly get mild lectures.

Of course, Davis isn't like most governors. He's arguably the most unpopular, the least respected, the lamest duck of any governor in modern times -- virtually without political capital.

He's weakened and spooked by the recall threat that's gaining momentum. Trying to appease Democrats, the governor backed off some spending cuts he originally sought. He proposed tax hikes, but seems skittish about loudly advocating them for fear of offending Republican voters.

At the Capitol, there's increasing talk about Davis being irrelevant. But a governor never is irrelevant. If he doesn't exert power -- doesn't lead -- there's a vacuum that's filled by another pol or bloc. The power shift is relevant, particularly when the shift is to the minority party.

Davis' weakness has emboldened Republicans. They feel empowered, not only because of California's paralyzing two-thirds vote requirement for budget passage. They feel buffed up because, with Davis' failure to make the public case for taxes, they've become more locked into their position. More adamant.

Republicans seem to have the upper hand. They're fixed on a goal: no taxes. Democrats are leaderless, confused and adrift.

There are even Democratic murmurs about maybe giving in to Republicans and passing another gimmicky, sleight-of-hand budget that gets the state through one more year without a tax increase. Afterward, it'd be in the same irresponsible pickle.

Procrastinate and punt -- Sacramento's favorite playbook.

But the game then could be delayed until after the March 2004 primary, when GOP lawmakers might be less fearful of an intraparty attack from their right. Because of redistricting, Republicans dread each other more than Democrats.

What Democrats need for this fight is a governor who's feisty and fearless. Like Davis' Republican predecessor.

Pete Wilson was a stand-alone guy who relished a good fight -- sold a tax hike, became unpopular, but never came close to a recall.

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