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The Growing Need for Deeper Involvement : California throws business community into such a state

Long before he decided to run for governor, then-Sen. Pete Wilson asked some Sacramento friends whether, in effect, California could be governed. Obviously, enough of them said yes to make the race seem worthwhile.

Last Wednesday, however, it might have occurred to Wilson to have his hearing tested. That day the California Business Roundtable released a survey in which four out of five business executives flatly declared California schools a failure, and one company in seven said it planned to leave the state because of the high cost of housing, labor and health care.

The same day, Elizabeth G. Hill, the legislative analyst, announced that without drastic measures, the state would face a $10-billion deficit by the end of next fiscal year rather than the already stratospheric $7 billion that Wilson’s own budget analysts expect.

Could trusted friends really have called conditions like those governable? As one recalled, it was a conditional yes: “I never said it would be easy.”

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The growing stack of unsolved problems has been obvious for some time. The dropout rate in many California schools is at scandalous heights. The education budget has gone up sharply in recent years, but so have both numbers of students and numbers of problem students.

Air pollution may at last be under control, but the price of clean air will be high and the battle is not over. Californians approved $18.5-billion worth of improvements to their transportation systems last year, but traffic jams will get thicker before the money shows results, and it will take even more money to reduce commuting times.

The cluttered California scene has cried out for years for deeper political involvement by business leaders, who have very high stakes in transportation, without which they cannot get goods to market; water, without which they cannot even produce the goods, and other parts of what is called infrastructure.

In that sense, the appearance of the Roundtable survey and the group’s briefing for Wilson is a good sign, but business generally sat on the sidelines of politics for so long that solving problems now will be more painful than it needed to be.

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The Roundtable played an important role in focusing public enthusiasm for education reform some years ago. But business will have to learn the rules of politics and compromise all over again. One example is the narrow focus of Wednesday’s call for school reform to provide the skilled labor needed to keep factories going.

The state needs educated citizens every bit as much as it needs workers; technical schools alone cannot revive the sense of values and standards that will be crucial in coming years to an ordered society.

Eighty-five percent of executives in the Roundtable survey listed more water as crucial for the state’s future. But nearly a decade after the bruising 1982 initiative campaign over whether to build a Peripheral Canal around the eastern edge of the Sacramento River Delta, north and south have only begun to patch up their differences on new water supplies.

Even on simple issues like new reservoirs or underground facilities to store runoffs from heavy winter rains, environmental review and the financial pinch could mean decades of waiting for a finished product.

Wilson is off to a good start. He already sees where schools need shoring up, but neither he nor anyone else yet sees where the money will come from. Sacramento sees more clearly that it probably needs to share more power with local governments. Nobody yet knows precisely how that should be done. Finally, the state’s politicians seem to understand that they cannot go on ducking hard issues for fear of alienating voters. If business is truly ready to return to the playing field, it can help rally support on tough issues. But it will take all of these, and more, before anyone can say with certainty that California is still governable.


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