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Governor Trims Coastal Panel’s Funds for Last Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the staff of the California Coastal Commission, Gov. George Deukmejian’s departure from office Jan. 6 will not be an occasion for tears.

The agency--set up to protect the coastline--has been a favorite target for Deukmejian since he took office in 1983. And the governor, who decided not to seek a third term this year, was true to form in his last whack at the state budget.

Last week, he vetoed $656,000 in funds for the Coastal Commission’s budget as part of $753 million in cuts to the fiscal 1990-91 spending plan he signed after a monthlong fight with the Legislature.

For the Coastal Commission, Deukmejian’s veto represented a 10% cut in the agency budget sent to him by the Legislature. It left the commission with a budget of about $6.5 million for the fiscal year that began July 1.

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James Burns, the commission’s chief deputy director, said the funds would have been used to fill vacant positions, especially for lawyers and analysts, whom he described as “the workhorses of the commission.” The money also would have paid travel expenses so more staff members could attend agency meetings, which are held throughout the state.

One commission staffer joked that until the governor leaves office in January, agency officials plan on “just generally keeping our belts so tight we stay blue in the face.”

Burns acknowledged that he is looking forward to January, 1991, because the two leading gubernatorial candidates--Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Pete Wilson--are expected to be more supportive of the commission.

That view was echoed by Melvin Nutter, a Long Beach lawyer who served as the panel’s chairman between 1982 and 1985. “There isn’t any question that both of the gubernatorial candidates have indicated an interest in and support for the Coastal Commission and protection of the coast. That will be a refreshing change. . . . It couldn’t be any worse,” Nutter said.

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Cindy Katz, assistant director of the state Department of Finance, defended Deukmejian’s latest veto of Coastal Commission funds, saying that anyone sitting in the governor’s chair would have been forced “to make the same difficult decisions” that he did. She also said that in the wake of this year’s budget crisis, the coastal panel fared better than most state agencies.

Still, commission supporters view Deukmejian’s budget veto as a parting shot at the agency. “He’s had eight years of this, and this was his last swipe at the commission, it would appear,” Nutter said.

The commission traces its origins to 1972, when voters approved an initiative that set it up. Since 1976, when the Legislature redefined its powers, the commission’s main responsibility has been passing judgment on local development plans for the coast.

During the Administration of Deukmejian’s predecessor--Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.--the commission was dominated by environmentalists. But Deukmejian came into office viewing the commission as an unnecessary layer of government.

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Unable to abolish the panel and turn its duties over to local government, Deukmejian in the last eight years has drastically reduced the agency’s budget and staff. Early in his Administration, for example, Deukmejian forced the commission to close its office in Eureka. And during his years in office, the agency’s full-time enforcement staff has dwindled from six to one to cover the entire state.

Last February, Elizabeth Hill, state legislative analyst, said that when adjusted for inflation, the commission’s $6.2-million budget originally proposed by Deukmejian for the 1990-91 fiscal year was $2 million less than it was in 1982-83. And she noted that the commission’s work force has been cut from 170 to 110 in the last eight years, a 35% reduction.

In the latest budget battle, while the spending plans for most state agencies were reduced across-the-board by 3%, the commission’s was one of those that Deukmejian chose to cut by an additional 7%.

Burns, the commission’s chief deputy director, said that even with the cut, the panel’s annual budget, excluding federal funds, should rise from about $6 million to an estimated $6.5 million. He said that most of that increase was due to increased salaries.

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Burns also said the blow of Deukmejian’s veto was somewhat softened because the Legislature added $651,000 from the license plate fund--proceeds from the sale of vanity plates--to offset a cut in the commission budget Deukmejian made last year. The governor kept those funds in the budget.


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