School Voucher Initiative Too Costly, Wilson Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a long-awaited statement, Gov. Pete Wilson announced Tuesday that he opposes the school voucher initiative on next month's ballot, dealing a new blow to the badly underfunded pro-voucher campaign.

Wilson said in a prepared statement that although he supports the concept of school vouchers, Proposition 174 would drain $1 billion to $1.6 billion from state coffers over the next three years.

"With California facing the very real possibility of a fourth year of falling revenue and resulting budget cuts," Wilson said, "I cannot responsibly advocate taking a risk that, given the odds, could seriously worsen the state's budget situation and jeopardize funding for education."

The governor announced his stand a day after President Clinton came out against Proposition 174 on the Nov. 2 ballot, and weeks after state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, Wilson's main Democratic rivals for the 1994 gubernatorial election, took their stands against it.

Opponents of the measure hailed the governor's decision. In a statement, Robert Nelson, strategist for the opposition effort, said Wilson "agrees that our state budget simply cannot withstand the permanent, new, billion-dollar-per-year entitlement program . . . just to pay for those students who are already in private schools."

Ken Khachigian, campaign manager for the Yes on 174 group, called the governor's stand a "very deep disappointment." Proponents had lobbied the governor hard to endorse the measure, hoping that with Wilson's support they could gain credibility with Republican sources of campaign funds.

"It basically deprives us of some financial support," Khachigian said, estimating that he could have raised another $500,000 from the business community with Wilson's endorsement.

If it passes, Proposition 174 would give parents vouchers worth about $2,600 for use toward tuition at private schools. The legislative analyst's office places the cost at hundreds of millions in the first few years. Like the governor, the legislative analyst based his estimate on predictions of the number of students already enrolled in private schools who would use vouchers.

Although some conservative Republicans oppose the measure, Wilson's stand appeared to push him further from conservatives in his party, including potential GOP presidential candidates.

William J. Bennett, education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, and Jack Kemp, former housing and urban development secretary under President George Bush, have come out in favor of the initiative. Former Gov. George Deukmejian also supports the initiative, as does the California Republican Party.

"If anything, some of the conservatives are going to get more fired up" in support of the initiative, Khachigian said. "I'm more fired up than I was yesterday."

By opposing the measure, Wilson is siding with the powerful California Teachers Assn., a group that has repeatedly battled him. It is among the largest donors to Democratic candidates and has spent more than $8 million to fight Proposition 174.

"CTA has had many disagreements with Pete Wilson, and we may have many more in the months or years ahead," said Del Weber, the union's president. "But simple fairness says that we should now publicly commend him for showing vision and courage in taking a stand against 174."

Khachigian said: "I'm sure (Wilson) is very unhappy being there" on the side of the teachers union and Democratic leaders.

Khachigian tried to win Wilson's support by playing on his antipathy toward the teachers union. In interviews and appearances before conservative groups, Khachigian has been saying that any Republican who opposes Proposition 174 would be siding with an archenemy of the party.

"You take a position based on the merits," said Wilson's communication director, Dan Schnur, "and if that means siding with individuals with whom you're not regularly allied, there is nothing wrong with that."

Wilson had been pressured by his education secretary, Maureen DiMarco, to oppose the proposition. If he had endorsed it and it passed, Wilson would have faced the prospect of a new budget crisis next spring and summer amid his reelection campaign.

Also on Tuesday, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman held a news conference in Sacramento announcing that 140 economists have endorsed the initiative. Friedman, who helped draft Proposition 174, said the measure would improve public schools by increasing competition with private academies.

Contrary to the stand taken by Wilson and other opponents, he also said public schools ultimately would benefit financially under a voucher system because they would save on such expenses as school construction as more students transfer to private schools.

Wilson and Friedman issued their statements as well-heeled opponents of Proposition 174 announced they were spending more of their hefty war chest to air two new television spots.

One is designed to appeal to older voters, featuring a gray-haired man who talks about the potential of tax increases if the initiative passes.

The other commercial says that private schools that accept tax-supported vouchers could deny admission to children based on their sex, religion or mental or physical abilities.

The main group supporting Proposition 174 has not aired any radio or TV commercials. In the first nine months of this year, the Yes on 174 campaign had raised about one-tenth of the $10 million raised by opponents. Its leaders planned a Sacramento news conference today to respond to attacks by the opposition, including the latest ads.

"I'm not so stupid to think that when you're outspent 10-1, it's going to be easy to overcome," said Khachigian. "But there are things that can happen between now and then that make us win. I'm not without a couple tricks up my sleeve."

On Tuesday, the Christian Coalition, a Virginia-based political action group headed by television evangelist Pat Robertson, announced that it had started airing radio spots in Los Angeles endorsing the initiative.

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