Deukmejian Serves the Middle Class : California: The governor's annual messages have changed little over his term--once again, the poor and social services get short shrift.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

In his final State of the State and budget messages last week, Gov. George Deukmejian underscored the tenor of his seven years as California's chief executive: His Administration has been relentlessly middle class.

That stance has not only been politically expedient, it is a reflection of the governor's own world view. Deukmejian has played mostly to his crowd, leaving millions of Californians on the outside.

In his first State of the State address, in 1983, Deukmejian told Californians, "I think it's time to make government work better . . . . That requires setting priorities and then following through with actions consistent with those priorities." His goals were "to make California safe (from crime) again," and "to listen to the people" and "restore fiscal responsibility without a net tax increase."

The people Deukmejian listened to then--and has listened to all along--are the white, largely middle class, conservative constituency that narrowly elected him governor over Tom Bradley in 1982; they are the bedrock of his--and Republican--political support in this state.

Once the governor's priorities were set, he remained unyielding in his pursuit of actions consistent with them--regardless of the economic cycle, social needs or Democratic demands.

For seven years Californians heard virtually the same speech and were proffered nearly the same budget--in terms of program emphasis if not actual dollar amounts.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) lauded this year's address as "visionary." But Deukmejian's budget showed that little has changed, despite the governor's trumpeting of "several new initiatives," including moves "to increase the availability of affordable housing and health insurance."

In the proposed 1990-91 budget, health and welfare programs would once again suffer the most drastic cuts, losing more than $1 billion. One more time, the traditional liberal constituencies--the poor, the elderly, those who disproportionately need social services--stand to take it on the chin.

But there were some positive signals. Deukmejian has embraced transportation improvement as a crucial part of his political legacy. His leadership on this issue is vital to the passage of Senate Constitutional Amendment 1, the traffic congestion relief and spending limitation act, which would fund that program. And there is every indication that he will exercise that leadership. He is currently hanging tough in the face of threats by legislators and special-interest groups, including developers who have been among his major supporters, to derail the fragile compromise that placed SCA 1 on the June ballot.

Deukmejian pledged to continue the spirit of compromise that permeated the Capitol in the wake of the governor's announcement that he would not seek a third term. The governor and the Legislature made significant progress on such thorny issues as gun control, transportation and workers' compensation.

That detente could continue with the governor's declaration of support for movement on issues dear to Democrats, like health care and auto insurance. Because the governor offered no concrete proposals in these areas, there is an opportunity for the Democratic-controlled Legislature to exert real policy leadership. Everything, it seems, is open for negotiation. Now the governor and Legislature must negotiate in good faith.

But what if Democrats find they can't live with the governor's proposals? If they accept less than half a loaf, will Democratic legislators risk undermining their own constituencies?

Where will the money come from to fund these programs? Deukmejian has artfully positioned Democratic legislators between a rock and a hard place on this one. Do they take responsibility for failure to implement adequate programs or do they accept the blame--and the political fallout--for raising taxes to support expanded services?

Much has been made about the governor's "born-again" environmentalism. He may well be, as Republican Senate Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno put it, "not looking at 1990 as a politician, but . . . as a citizen who is going to have to live here." Yet his perspective on the quality of life is still the narrow one of middle-class America. An environmental initiative is not simply proposing, as Deukmejian did last week, a litter-control program that would make highways look prettier, as California drivers travel them ever more slowly.

And what can one make of a governor who virtually ignores the homeless issue but urges civic groups to "adopt a highway" and "take the responsibility for keeping it clean"? That may put Deukmejian on the cutting edge of litter--but what about responsibility for his fellow Californians, thousands of whom live on the streets?

The governor's homeless initiatives are mainly wrapped up in housing-assistance programs. His call for more affordable low- and moderate-income housing is to be lauded. And it does reach down to the lower-middle class.

But Deukmejian's first-time homeowners' assistance proposals remain consistent with a middle-class bias. Not coincidentally, they can help to alleviate complaints that businesses can't hire out-of-state workers or won't locate here because of brutal housing costs.

Deukmejian's housing proposals also underscore a potential pitfall for future governors. Like other Deukmejian "initiatives," they would be financed by bonds, which do not fall under the Gann spending limitations and do not require a tax increase. Adding to the state's bonded indebtedness has become a popular way to skirt current fiscal and political constraints, saving the budget consequences for future generations.

Shifting the burden of payment and deferring expenditures has precedent, of course. One longtime Sacramento budget watcher labeled it "the curse of the eighth-year budget." In their eighth and last years in office, Govs. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., Ronald Reagan and Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. all bequeathed budget problems to their successors.

Recalling administrations from Goodwin J. Knight (1953-59) to Deukmejian, this budget-watcher said, "After every eighth year, the ninth year has brought a tax increase. In 1959, Pat Brown introduced and passed a series of tax proposals; 1967 brought Ronald Reagan's billion-dollar tax increase; 1975 brought tax increases under Jerry Brown; 1983 brought loophole-closing under Deukmejian--just another shape of taxes; are we going to respect our traditions?"

Quite possibly, particularly given the added uncertainties of the national economy and federal budget decisions. How much room really exists to negotiate over the governor's budget (and how likely it is that Deukmejian will leave his successor holding the fiscal bag) can depend on what Congress does with respect to the capital-gains tax.

In fact, with the annual May revision of the budget--to reflect economic and political changes--the real work of financing government begins.

Six years ago, Deukmejian concluded his State of the State address by urging Californians to ask "What legacy will we leave our children?" Now Californians must ask, "What legacy will George Deukmejian leave the state?"

Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) insists that Deukmejian's "enduring legacy will be what he didn't do." But Deukmejian does care a great deal about leaving a more positive imprint. Will he achieve his goal "to leave California better than it was when I came into office?" Only time, politics and the May revision will tell.

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