Deukmejian Fit the ‘80s, but the Future Demands Era of Activism

<i> Assemblyman Tom Hayden, a Democrat, represents the 44th District (Santa Monica)</i>

Gov. George Deukmejian’s decision to not seek a third term signals more than a personal retirement. It also begins the eclipse of an era of conservative government. California now faces two choices--to become adrift through deadlock or enter a new era of government activism.

A decade ago Californians were in no mood for such activism. A squeezed middle class, pounded by inflation, wanted two things that Democrats seemingly couldn’t deliver: lower property taxes to save their homes, and a tougher approach to violent urban crime.

George Deukmejian fit the voters’ bill. If Edmund G. Brown Jr. had been an experimental dreamer, Deukmejian was a reassuring night watchman, protecting individual property rights against both government do-gooders and criminal trespassers. His core program was twofold: to keep taxes down to stimulate private productivity and to eliminate liberal judges, restore the death penalty and lock up more criminals. When public pressure was great enough, he suggested action on education and toxics. But the hallmarks were less government spending and more law and order.

By these standards, Deukmejian has been a successful chief executive. Though he has accepted $500 million in annual tax increases cloaked as “revenue adjustments,” he has fought off efforts to expand the general fund through income or sales taxes, or closing loopholes.


Ten years after Proposition 13, which set the tone of the Deukmejian era, $121 billion in potential taxes has been kept by homeowners and corporations, mostly the latter. Deukmejian’s ending of the unitary system of taxing multinational corporations has meant a further loss of unknown billions in revenue. The effect on the state budget is immense: One year of lost Proposition 13 revenue is $11 billion, or 23% of the governor’s proposed new budget.

On the law-and-order front, the governor defeated the liberal Rose Bird court and replaced it with a conservative one, and he is adding more than 15 prisons. A decade ago, there were about 20,000 convicts in the prisons; in 1982-83, Deukmejian’s first year, there were 37,200. This year there are 86,000; in 1994, the number is projected at 110,000. Each new prison bed costs $81,000 to build, each prisoner about $20,000 annually to maintain--about twice the cost of sending a student through the University of California.

Now the night-watchman government is confronted by a very different dawn. By a passive approach to problem-solving, Deukmejian has allowed problems of transportation, education, pollution and water to grow into expensive crises. There is a rising sense that the state is at gridlock, not only in solving such crises but in lacking the necessary political nerve.

Deukmejian himself belatedly cites the challenge of the next decade: “California will be home to 9 to 10 million new people, (adding) 10 million new vehicles to our roads, swelling the school population by 1.2 million students, the retirement community by 1.7 million, and requiring over 3 million new housing units. Our people will be older and today’s ethnic minorities will comprise the new majority.”

This future does not call for a conservative caretaker of the status quo. It requires an innovative, problem-solving approach to governing that George Deukmejian has not displayed in 20 years of honorable public service.

In the absence of government activism, the California future looks like survival of the fittest.

Take, as one example, health care. To achieve his law-and-order goals within a zero-sum budget, the governor is proposing a slash of at least $500 million from health and welfare, including the improper use of revenue from the new tobacco tax that voters approved in November. Because of such cuts in access, the number of babies, mothers and old people suffering preventable death and disease has actually risen in each year of Deukmejian’s tenure, as if California were an underdeveloped country.

This crisis, or the fact that California has the most overcrowded classrooms in the country, or the most congested freeways and the most poisoned urban air, suggests that a new direction is inevitable.

The voters are not the obstacle. In addition to the tobacco tax (which was to pay for new health-care programs), they approved billions in bonds last year for housing the homeless, acquiring public parks, modernizing university facilities and the like. If any of these projects were done through the state budget instead of bonds, they would be only half as costly.

Perhaps the governor will see the next two years as an opportunity to build toward the future, as Earl Warren and Edmund G. (Pat) Brown did in the past. But building means bold government, and that is not the Deukmejian approach. That is why his retirement marks a likely transition to different leadership.