Gov. Pete Wilson was booed and heckled Tuesday during a speech to about 1,000 homeless and housing advocates angry over his proposed cuts in programs for the poor.
Wilson, the first governor in 12 years to address the annual conference of homeless groups, was interrupted frequently by boos, catcalls and obscenity-laced comments.
Opponents of the budget cuts shouted, “Raise taxes!” and “Tax the rich!” and waved signs carrying slogans such as “Don’t Hurt Kids,” and “Stop the Wo’ on the Po.’ ” The Wilson critics stood on chairs, held banners aloft and, near the end of his speech, orchestrated a walkout from the large conference room at a hotel near downtown.
Wilson, showing a spunkiness rarely exhibited by his predecessor, Gov. George Deukmejian, refused to back down and frequently engaged in give-and-take with the audience.
At one point Wilson told the protesters, attending the last day of a two-day conference, that “placards will not build houses.” And when some activists demanded that Wilson tax the movie industry or give up his own salary to save money, the Republican governor shot back: “I haven’t heard a solution yet, friends.”
Wilson also had supporters in the audience who applauded when he said the problem of homelessness is not going to be solved by “volume in terms of noise, but volume in terms of housing.”
Despite that, homeless coalition officials described the audience as almost universally critical of Wilson budget proposals that are aimed at welfare recipients and housing programs.
Faced with a potential deficit of at least $8 billion and possibly more than $10 billion, Wilson is seeking authority from the Legislature to eliminate a $70-million state and federal homeless assistance program for welfare recipients, reduce tax credits given to renters by $240 million, and cut financial aid for recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children by 9%.
Wilson opponents have said his plan to reduce AFDC grants, which welfare families rely on for shelter, food, clothes and other living expenses, would push many poor families closer to or into the ranks of the homeless.
Wilson told the housing advocates that he was forced to propose the cuts because of the state’s unprecedented budget problem. “Dollars are as short as water is these days,” he said, referring to the drought.
Rather than talk about the cuts, Wilson reminded the audience that his proposed $55.7-billion budget for 1991-92 contains $1 million in additional aid for migrant farm families, $10 million in bond funds to provide housing for migrant families, and $39 million in housing assistance for victims of the October, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake.
“He was booed because he didn’t address the issues of concern to people at the conference,” said Los Angeles attorney Melinda Bird, of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “A lot of people were astounded that he would come to the conference and not address his budget cuts.”
Critics also said they were incensed by a comment Wilson made during his speech--"homelessness is a social tragedy that results from any number of personal tragedies: drug abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, battered wives, runaway kids. . . . Providing shelter alone is not going to solve the problems, not those problems.”
Matt Little Moon, a homeless advocate from Oakland, said, “This is absolute nonsense--to say that somehow the victims of homelessness are themselves to blame for their condition.”
Wilson was urged to appear before the group by Ward Connerly, a Republican supporter who operates a private consulting business and advises the governor on housing issues. “He knew he was coming into a situation with people who had frustrations,” Connerly said. Connerly said he thought “civility would prevail.”
Of the homeless advocates, Connerly said, “Their minds were closed. The governor was offering things to them that said, ‘The door is open, let’s talk,’ and he couldn’t even get the words out of his mouth because (the audience) interrupted him.”
Wilson’s staff appeared unruffled by the event. James Lee, an assistant Wilson press secretary who videotaped the speech, said, “Most of the people wanted to hear what he had to say. It was just a vocal minority who were causing the problem.”
In another budget development, state Controller Gray Davis said he may attempt to hold up pay for legislators if they do not produce a budget by June 15, as the California Constitution mandates.
Davis by law controls the disbursement of state funds, although to hold up lawmakers’ salaries could require special legislation, legislative aides said.
Davis made his comment after the Commission on State Finance released an updated budget analysis placing the state’s funding shortfall at $9.5 billion over two budget years.