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NEWS ANALYSIS : Wilson Has Passing Marks on 100-Day Report Card : Capitol: Governor’s public image and relations with lawmakers are good. But he still faces budget crisis test.

TIMES SACRAMENTO BUREAU CHIEF

Gov. Pete Wilson reaches a symbolic milestone today, his 100th day in office, the point where new administrations traditionally receive their initial grades. So give Wilson an A for charm, a B for innovation and an incomplete for problem solving.

He gets high marks for cozying up to the Legislature, which is anxious for a friend after years of scandal, feuds with former Gov. George Deukmejian and voter alienation. He also has been widely praised for pushing “preventive government,” the concept of heading off societal ailments before they germinate by emphasizing prenatal care, preschooling and the like.

But the Republican governor is not anywhere close to resolving the state’s massive, unprecedented budget crisis, let alone such complex, long-term problems as water planning and growth management that will shape the face of California in the 21st Century. Nobody expected him to be.

“He weathered the first 100 days with no criticism, no permanent negatives and no achievement,” said Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), in a bit of oversimplification that echoes the consensus of legislators, lobbyists and veteran Capitol observers who were asked to grade Wilson’s early efforts.

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“He is, in a number of ways, a departure from what we’ve had in the past,” observed Assembly Republican Leader Ross Johnson of La Habra. “Clearly, there’s a difference in style.”

“No governor in the history of the country, perhaps with the exception of the Civil War, has come into office facing greater difficulties,” Johnson continued. “It would be very easy to hunker down in the ‘oval office’ and turn the electric blanket up to nine and assume the prenatal position, but he tends to be very aggressive, not only in dealing with the budget but in trying to change government.”

Wilson, in an interview with The Times, described himself as being “well launched” toward achieving his goals, despite being “surprised by the dimensions, the magnitude of the gap between (state) revenues and expenditures.” He said he was not expecting “quite so pronounced” a fifth year of drought, or the winter freeze.

But “the job is pretty much what I thought it would be,” he added, while acknowledging some homesickness for his former Senate colleagues in Washington and for the global issues of defense and foreign policy that he relished.

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Recalling the congressional vote that authorized President Bush to wage war with Iraq, and the first time he encountered new U.S. Sen. John Seymour after having appointed the former legislator to succeed him in the Senate, Wilson said:

“I grabbed Seymour and gave him a squeeze around the neck, saying ‘I spent eight years in those hours-long hearings of the Armed Services Committee dealing with absolutely eye-glazing detail, most of it classified material. You get back there, sit through one damn hearing and you’re asked to participate in a debate and cast a vote I would have given my eyeteeth to do.’ ”

Wilson said he was “fascinated” watching the war from afar.

There are conflicting theories about whether the war helped or hurt Wilson during his first crucial weeks in the state Capitol. After highly acclaimed inaugural and State of the State addresses, the governor set out on a series of orchestrated news media events to sell his programs to a curious public. But the media and the public were riveted on the Persian Gulf. The selling campaign lost the invaluable early momentum that a governor enjoys only once.

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That is one theory. Another, expressed privately by some advisers, is that the war helped Wilson by steering public attention away from his proposed spending cuts and tax increases and allowing him more time to get his act together.

“I’d rather have the front page,” said gubernatorial press secretary Bill Livingstone, lamenting that the war “probably hurt” Wilson’s first 100 days.

The 100-day span, of course, has little relevance except that its culmination represents a benchmark point upon which chief executives invariably have been measured since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days as President.

But FDR’s first 100 days stand alone in history as a time of enormous achievement by a politically skilled, self-assured, tenacious executive. Maneuvering an incredibly cooperative Congress, the new President responded to the deepening crisis of the Depression by leading a bloodless revolution that became known as the New Deal. So remarkable was the period that its chronicling created a political cliche--"the first 100 days"--that has evolved into a time frame for gauging not only presidents, but governors and mayors.

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Today, 100-day assessments generate a lot of hype, mostly by those being assessed. Wilson has been racing the 100-day clock, trying to clear his desk of important unfinished business such as the completion of a Cabinet. As of Monday, the governor still was hoping to fill the final slot--Health and Welfare secretary--by today’s close of business. Insiders say he has had trouble finding somebody willing to defend his proposed welfare cuts for mothers and children.

Wilson also has increased his public appearance schedule lately and invited media interviews in an effort to influence his early grades.

One thing he is given good marks for, by Democrats and Republicans alike, is handling the drought emergency. He got lucky with the “March miracle” of heavy downpours, but luck is a staple of any successful politician. Wilson already had positioned himself well for either good luck or bad by creating a “drought action team” and assuming personal command of a growing crisis.

Wilson’s key move was establishing a state water bank that bought surplus water from Northern farmers and sold it to urban agencies, including the Metropolitan Water District, and some desperate orchard owners in the lower San Joaquin Valley.

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The governor’s water bank was successful beyond his expectations, largely because he used the old carrot-and-stick routine. Money was the carrot for water-rich farmers. The stick, in effect, was the governor’s threat to condemn their water anyway by evoking his emergency powers. He never had to, nor did he feel compelled to impose statewide rationing.

Wilson is talking about institutionalizing the water bank as part of a long-term solution to California’s water problems. But development of any such comprehensive plan has been placed on the Administration’s back burner until the budget crisis is resolved.

Wilson, however, does have a beefed-up Office of Planning and Research trying to develop an ambitious growth management plan in time for him to unveil during his second State of the State address next January. “What we’re talking about is nothing less than how we want California to look in the 21st Century. We’re racing flat out to meet the governor’s end-of-year deadline,” said Richard Sybert, Office of Planning and Research director.

The agency is close to Wilson’s heart. As an assemblyman, he authored the bill that created it 21 years ago.

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But for now, Wilson’s time is being increasingly consumed by the state’s growing fiscal crisis. At last count--and the figures seem to change every other week--the state was expecting to take in $12.6 billion less than it plans to spend over the next 14 months or so.

“There are people in the Legislature who never before have voted for a tax increase who are going to have to,” Wilson told an interviewer for public television, referring to conservative Republicans. Speaking of liberal Democrats, he added: “There are people in the Legislature who will have to vote for spending cuts that are distinctly unpleasant.”

The governor’s advisers say that he wants to fix the budget mess permanently this year so he never again has to raise taxes. Both they and their boss are openly critical of Deukmejian and past legislatures for “papering over” the money problem from year to year.

Wilson’s biggest fight so far has been with the California Teachers Assn., one of the most powerful special interests in the Capitol. The group has run television commercials and conducted statewide rallies opposing the governor’s efforts to suspend Proposition 98, which guarantees public schools 40% of the state’s general fund.

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But state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, in contrast to his bitter name-calling battles with Deukmejian, has stayed out of the line of fire. Speaking of the war between Wilson and the teachers group, Honig said: “It’s unfortunate for both sides. It could get out of hand.”

Honig noted that Wilson endorsed him when he first ran for state schools chief nine years ago and added, “I think he’s a straight-shooter. I felt betrayed by Deukmejian.”

Concluded Deukmejian’s first chief of staff, Steven A. Merksamer: “I think Wilson’s doing a good job, but his tests haven’t come yet. His defining moments are ahead of him. The question is how well are he and his team prepared to meet the tests. And we do not know the answer to that question.”


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