For the second time this year, Republican Sen. Pete Wilson has come out in favor of a tax increase to pay for a more aggressive war on drugs, a cause that has long been a central focus of his reelection campaign.
Wilson said Tuesday that he did not think that he was playing with political fire when he voted for beer and wine tax increases, which he has opposed in the past, even though the most recent statewide poll shows his lead in the Senate race narrowing to three points. Another recent poll has Wilson holding on to a 13-point lead.
Balancing his fiscal conservatism against his commitment to the $2.6-billion anti-drug legislation pending in the Senate, Wilson said he voted “reluctantly” last week for a measure that would have raised taxes on beer and wine--by 5 cents a bottle and the same per glass of wine--for the first time in 40 years.
The tax proposal died, but Congress could resurrect it as members search for ways pay for the drug bill.
Wilson’s endorsement of the tax represents one of the rare occasions when either candidate in the Senate race has indicated how he would pay for the array of programs both sides have put on the table during the 1988 campaign.
Wilson’s Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, has called for about $5 billion in spending on anti-drug efforts, education, child care and health care for elderly. In addition, he has proposed a $100-billion cleanup of military toxic waste over 10 years. Beyond saying he would cut at least $1 billion from the Strategic Defense Initiative, McCarthy has not said a great deal about how he would pay for his programs.
Wilson said Tuesday that he would have preferred to finance the drug bill by taking money away from several other federally funded enterprises, including Amtrak, the Legal Services Corp., the Low-Income Energy Assistance program and the Economic Development Administration, which provides grants for construction projects in depressed areas.
Last week, the Senate defeated a motion to cut those programs by about $800 million.
Last summer, Wilson called for random drug testing of young people applying for driver’s licenses. Wilson said the testing would be paid for by raising the fee each applicant must pay.
McCarthy, promptly labeled the fee a tax and said the testing would cost Californians up to $500 million a year.
Wilson scoffs at the figure, his aides contending that the testing would cost $2.5 million in California and add 50 cents to a $1 to each application fee. Wilson hopes that his drug-testing proposal will be adopted as an amendment to the pending drug bill.
A spokesman for the McCarthy campaign said Tuesday that there is enough money in the budget to wage a wider war on drugs without imposing new taxes.
Wilson has devoted the last two days to attacking McCarthy’s record on fighting crime, at one point describing McCarthy as an “ACLU liberal” who is more interested in protecting the rights of criminals than suspects. Wilson said he did not know if McCarthy has ever been a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said he invoked the name of the organization as a way of characterizing McCarthy’s “philosophical approach to criminal justice.”
McCarthy is not a member of the ACLU, according to his campaign research director, Roy Behr.
“He is a member of the YMCA, but apparently Pete gets the two groups confused,” Behr said.
On Tuesday, Wilson was joined by former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, who said that McCarthy, when he was Assembly Speaker during the 1970s, “was one of the people who fought us along the way.” He said McCarthy had been a foe of tougher sentencing bills and of legislation authorizing wiretapping.
While McCarthy is now supporting wiretapping, Philibosian said he did not see it as a heartfelt position.
“Some people might even call that consumer fraud,” Philibosian said of McCarthy’s claim that he has long been in favor of wiretapping.
McCarthy, in turn, has accused Wilson of hypocrisy on crime issues, contending that Wilson voted 12 times to cut federal spending for federal drug agencies.
Two recent polls tell differing stories about the current status of the race. According to Teichner and Associates, Wilson’s lead has shrunk from a 45%-36% advantage in September to a 40%-37% margin last week. Steve Teichner said Tuesday, however, that voters continue to have a more positive view of Wilson than McCarthy, and the race “is still Wilson’s to lose.”
Lance Tarrance, an independent Texas pollster who is tracking a number of races across the country, found Wilson leading 49% to 36% in a poll completed a few days prior to Teichner’s.