Split on School Vouchers at GOP Convention : Politics: Arguments rage over Prop. 174 at the state party's gathering. A panel votes to oppose ballot measure seeking a half-cent sales tax increase.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With just six weeks remaining until a special statewide election, California Republicans attending their fall convention Saturday joined a lively debate about the two most controversial issues on the ballot--education and taxes.

The school voucher initiative--Proposition 174--has been endorsed by the state Republican Party at two of its past conventions. But with a vote approaching that could radically alter California's school system, GOP opponents took their fight to the convention this weekend, bolstered by polls showing that Republican voters are divided on the idea.

Proposition 172, a half-cent sales tax to help pay for law enforcement, was equally divisive as conservatives complained that support for the issue from Gov. Pete Wilson and other GOP leaders could prevent Republicans from attacking President Clinton's tax increases.

The arguments raged throughout the Anaheim Hilton on Saturday, in hallways plastered with stickers and balloons; in dueling news conferences before California reporters; in committees analyzing proposed resolutions and in forums staged to debate the merits of the issues.

Party officials said interest in the two measures was so high that nearly 2,000 activists, lawmakers and delegates attended the convention--more than double the number that usually participate in a non-election year.

The outcome of the debate is not likely to have much practical effect because it is not binding on government and it usually has little sway with voters. But both sides of both issues battled for the party's endorsement as they all claimed to represent the majority of Republicans.

The convention's Resolutions Committee voted in favor of a proposal Saturday that would place the Repubican Party in opposition to Proposition 172. The vote was a surprise to Wilson supporters who had been lobbying to kill the resolution.

The issue will be presented to a meeting of the party's general membership today. Wilson supporters who fought the resolution predicted that it will pass.

"This victory tells us that when it comes down to principles, the Republican Party is opposed to new taxes," said Jim Dignan, former state GOP chairman and co-author of the resolution.

Since the party has supported Proposition 174 at previous conventions, the committee decided not to consider a resolution in opposition to the initiative. It could be raised at the general meeting today.

Wilson, facing a tough reelection fight next year, also spoke at the convention Saturday evening, highlighting a list of his Administration's accomplishments. Wilson said he has trimmed the size and cost of government by leaving 16,000 jobs unfilled, abolishing more than 100 boards and commissions and reducing welfare grants.

"Taken together, these reforms are sending a resounding message across the nation and around the world," Wilson said. "That message is: California is coming back and Republican leadership is showing the way."

The governor did not mention the ballot measures in his speech, but he still found himself dragged into the debates.

With his party divided on the idea, Wilson has not taken a position on the school voucher initiative and activists from both sides encouraged him to make a decision.

State Democratic Party Chairman Bill Press, an opponent of Proposition 174, also drew attention to Wilson's neutrality by showing up at the GOP convention to chide the governor for "straddling the fence for so long."

"Our purpose is to point out the lack of leadership by the governor," said Press, who was frequently drowned out by chanting crowds of Proposition 174 proponents.

Proposition 174 would provide parents of school-age children with a voucher worth about $2,600 that they could redeem at any public or private school.

Proponents argue that it would provide a means of escape to children attending poor schools as well as an incentive for schools to improve through competition. But those against the measure say it is too costly and that it is an improper use of taxpayers' money.

A recent poll by The Times found that 45% of California voters oppose the idea and 39% said they would vote in favor of it. Support was also split almost evenly among Republican voters.

Wilson also faced sharp criticism at the convention from conservatives opposed to his support for Proposition 172. The half-cent sales tax was a centerpiece of the governor's last state budget that he offered to help defray public safety costs.

But the issue has become a vehicle for conservatives who have never been happy with Wilson. At a news conference, some lawmakers even encouraged a primary challenge.

"I think it would be healthy for the Republican Party to have a primary challenge," said William E. Dannemeyer, a former Orange County congressman and now a candidate for U.S. Senate. "What we need to do is oppose Proposition 172 and save the governor from himself."

Former state Assemblyman Tom McClintock, who has not ruled out a campaign against Wilson, said he does not believe that the governor should be reelected because his support for taxes would require the Republican Party to "fundamentally redefine itself."

The governor's office argued that most voters and Republicans support the half-cent sales tax because it is needed to pay for law enforcement.

"The passage of Proposition 172 is important because the people of California deserve an appropriate level of funding for law enforcement and safety," said Dan Schnur, spokesman for the governor.

The Times poll last week found a wide majority of California voters, including Republicans, supports Proposition 172.

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