Although Los Angeles County Chief Administrative Officer Harry L. Hufford doesn’t like to stand out in a crowd, he’s managed to attract the cold-eyed attention of Gov. Pete Wilson.
Wilson, confronted with a huge deficit, has proposed drastically reducing the amount of money the state provides to counties and cities. Hufford is fighting the Wilson proposal. He believes the state should adopt a “five-year budget,” stretching out its debts over half a decade.
Earlier this month I saw the governor at a breakfast with reporters and asked him about the Hufford plan. He called it “deficit spending Washington-style” and said it was: “Incredible. Irresponsible. Unconstitutional.”
Usually the CAO--the county’s chief fiscal officer--doesn’t get into fights with the governor. Chief administrative officers are, for the most part, the ultimate civil servants, quiet, unobtrusive, letting the elected officials--the five county supervisors--take the credit or the heat.
This was Hufford’s modus operandi in his previous 11-year term as Los Angeles County CAO. He retired in 1985 to become a top administrator for the big downtown law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. But recently the supes asked him to come back on an interim basis, until they find a permanent replacement for Richard Dixon, who left earlier in the year.
His years among Gibson Dunn’s ferocious litigators changed Hufford. So has the immensity of Los Angeles County’s fiscal crisis.
The county is in charge of some of government’s most difficult, thankless and unglamorous jobs--health care for the poor, courts, jails and welfare.
Few people appreciate the men and women who run the county jail. The hard-working physicians in the county hospitals seldom make the news unless they’re shot by a crazy patient. And I don’t see civic awards being handed out to county nurses waging daily battles against the measles and tuberculosis racing through L.A. slums, diseases we all thought had been eradicated long ago.
In the ‘70s, there were fewer criminals, and many fewer of the impoverished sick. Los Angeles County had enough money to provide the services needed by the poor. Property tax revenues had exploded because of real estate inflation. In 1978, the average West L.A. real estate assessment rose 125%, and some tripled. The state treasury was fat too. An income tax that rose with inflation built a state surplus of about $5 billion.
Gov. Jerry Brown let the money accumulate, figuring it would give him a reputation as a conservative for his November, 1978, reelection campaign. It just sat there, infuriating tax-battered voters. The Legislature, as gridlocked then as it is now, did nothing.
The result was overwhelming voter approval of Proposition 13, the famous property tax limit. In Los Angeles County, Hufford, in his first stretch as CAO, suddenly had to deal with a $1-billion property tax revenue loss.
Faced with such disasters around the state, Brown and the Legislature distributed $4 billion of the surplus to counties, cities, schools, and to fire, water and other districts dependent on the property tax. For a time, a calamitous loss in services was averted.
This state aid, which has continued into the ‘90s, is at the heart of the dispute between Wilson and Hufford, who is supported by a majority of the Board of Supervisors.
To Wilson, the post-1978 flow of state cash into empty local government treasuries has been a bailout, a handout to impoverished and profligate relatives. It was fine for the prosperous ‘80s, but with the recession cutting state revenues, the handout days are over.
Many Republican and Democratic legislators share this view. It is one of the few issues on which Wilson and Democratic Speaker Willie Brown agree.
To Hufford and the L.A. supervisors, it was no bailout. Rather, the post-Proposition 13 state aid was overdue help for huge statewide problems that confront county government, particularly those in urban areas.
The long-dormant diseases sweeping through urban slums are not a “local problem,” they say. The tuberculosis and measles in L.A.'s teeming Pico-Union slum can be carried to the Ventura suburbs by sick workers. And, as we saw with the riots, the social and economic costs of the county’s problems reach far beyond L.A. County’s boundaries.
Beginning next month, Hufford and the supervisors will make that argument in the Capitol halls.
When he went up to Sacramento in 1978 after Proposition 13 passed, Hufford could afford to be polite. There was money for all.
That’s not the case in 1993. As Wilson indicated in his condemnation of Hufford’s plan, this is no time to be nice.