Help For Now, Plans For Later

Gov. George Deukmejian and leaders of both parties in the Legislature have moved with appropriate dispatch in considering a special legislative session to deal with the devastation of last Tuesday's earthquake. But a good deal of prudence and careful thought will be just as critical to the development of both immediate and long-term programs of emergency assistance and reconstruction of public facilities.

California already has an excellent process, developed following the 1987 Whittier quake, for speeding disaster assistance to local government without the need for legislative appropriation. The first money was transferred Friday after the city of San Francisco depleted its payroll account. Temporary housing for the displaced is an urgent consideration. But looking to the future, the Northern California experience gives the state an opportunity to finally develop adequate preparation for major earthquake disasters.

The first burden of relief is on the federal government. During the next few days, the best efforts of California leaders will be needed in Washington. A Sacramento delegation will be on hand when Congress puts together a package of emergency assistance. The close relationship of the governor and President Bush will be helpful in making certain that the federal government comes through on Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner's promise of Friday that Washington will assume "a very, very major role in helping California."

When Deukmejian and the Legislature's task force meet Monday to consider a state program, the governor should consider accompanying the delegation to Washington to help present a comprehensive plan for $1 billion or more, primarily for cleanup and reconstruction of damaged highways and other transportation facilities. Each federal dollar frees up state funds for other work and eases the stress on a state highway fund that already is stretched to the limit.

The next priority is a special legislative session to consider emergency financing to raise the state matching funds needed for bridge and highway repairs. The obvious solution is a temporary gasoline-tax increase. While some legislators already have proposed a surcharge of as much as 25 cents a gallon, there still is no reliable estimate of actual damage and replacement cost. There also are proposals for a temporary sales-tax increase for restoration of other public works such as water and sewer systems and city and county buildings. But some legislative experts claim that a bond issue financed out of ongoing revenues, or very minor tax adjustments, makes more sense. The bond idea deserves careful consideration. Certainly the long-range investment in capital construction projects is an appropriate use of bond money.

And next, the legislative task force should examine the adequacy of the entire range of state laws dealing with earthquake preparation and damage prevention. Their work might be supplemented by a small but highly qualified advisory group appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. These groups should revisit the obvious areas: adequacy of schools, hospitals, dams, aqueducts, levees, bridges, freeway ramps and all other public buildings. They should also explore new ways of avoiding damage, such as putting strict limits on new construction in highly vulnerable areas like San Francisco's Marina District. A comprehensive legislative program should be prepared for introduction at the first day of the 1990 session in January.

State Sen. Alfred Alquist (D-San Jose) has been the earthquake conscience of the California Legislature. He has fought to pass earthquake protection programs in the Legislature for decades with considerable success, only because of his dogged persistence. "We know the things that need to be done," Alquist said. The problem has been getting lawmakers to go along with the considerable cost. California's latest earthquake, and specifically the collapse of the Nimitz Freeway, should demonstrate that reluctance to spend money now will reap disastrous dividends on some new black day in California's future.

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