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New Spirit of Sacramento

It took years of stalemate, but California’s political leaders finally figured out that partisan dogma is no cure for the growing pains of the largest and richest state in the nation.

Having done that, Gov. George Deukmejian and the Legislature teamed up on a budget that for the first time in a long time meets most of the state’s needs in education, public works, health care and other social programs. With a rare push in the right direction by both business and labor, they also started trying to repair some of the unintended damage to fundamental public services that was done by the tax revolts of the late 1970s.

Now Sacramento must translate its own conversion to the view that government must function as a problem-solver into votes for two of the most important elements of what emerged from marathon negotiations last Friday. A plan to increase the state gasoline tax by nine cents a gallon over the next five years must be approved in a June election next year. So must a plan to revise the formula for setting an annual limit on state spending that would allow the state to make more money available for public services, some of which have been dangerously low on funds for too long.

Gone last week was the stubborn refusal to yield an inch to opposing views that characterized Sacramento during most of the 1980s. Gone was the concern, implicit in so much recent rhetoric, that government might accidentally do too much for people. In its place appeared a new concern that it probably was not doing enough.

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Perhaps the most telling description of the new era came from Deukmejian himself. “I think we’ve done what the people sent us up here to do on these kinds of major problems,” he said as he signed the last two bills in the package on Friday night.

Just as telling was the response to the final package from Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction, who might have been able to kick the entire package apart and who did not even try. Honig campaigned last year for Proposition 98, which guaranteed public schools a minimum amount of state revenues each year and could have claimed for the schools nearly 50% of the state budget by 1999. The Governor and the Legislature negotiated a change that would make a 40% share for the schools both the maximum and the minimum, another plan that must be approved by California voters.

If voters approve, commuters stand to win nearly as big as public school students as a result of the new spirit of Sacramento. Deukmejian and legislative leaders also worked out a program to finance a 10-year expansion of streets, highways and mass transit systems at a cost of $18.5 billion.

By the time the last vote on the transportation program was cast last week, California had sunk far down on the list of states in spending on streets and highways, a curious position for a state so admittedly wed to and dependent on automobiles. Historians may one day be able to describe in detail what took Sacramento so long to decide that California’s problems cannot be solved by rigid politics. For our part, we will settle for rejoicing at the fact that it happened at all.

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