GSA's Johnson Pledges to Fund O.C. Courthouse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite Tuesday's vote in Congress denying $25.2 million needed to build Orange County's first federal courthouse, General Services Administrator Roger W. Johnson has pledged that he will find the money necessary to keep the long-awaited project on schedule.

In a letter made public Tuesday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Johnson assured the chairman of the Senate Treasury subcommittee, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), that "the Santa Ana courthouse project remains a top priority of the General Services Administration."

While acknowledging that the appropriations bill now before Congress does not contain funds for the new courthouse to be named after Ronald Reagan, Johnson told DeConcini, "I am committed to proceeding with this project and to completing it within the agreed upon scope."

The former board chairman of Orange County-based Western Digital Corp. said that the "GSA will identify a source for the needed $25.2 million from within the authorized funding for the Federal Buildings Fund and will submit a reprogramming request for approval of Congress in a time frame that will permit us to maintain current contract award schedules."

Funds for the planned courthouse were "included in the President's budget," Johnson noted, but were cut by a House-Senate conference committee acting on instructions to cut "pork barrel" projects included in the budget by members of the Democratic majority.

On Tuesday morning, the House of Representatives voted 360 to 53 to approve the Treasury, Postal Service and General Government budget, after trimming appropriations for the GSA's Federal Buildings Fund from $736 million to $518 million. Among the projects left without sufficient funds to begin construction were the planned federal courthouses in Santa Ana and Laredo, Tex., as well as a U.S. Geological Survey lab in Lakewood, Colo.

The Senate is expected to approve later this week the same budget the House passed.

The GSA has said that without full funding in hand it would be impossible for that agency to let any contracts for the courthouse and thus the project would have to be scaled back or delayed at least a year.

Until last week, things seemed to be moving smoothly toward a scheduled 1997 completion of a 10-story courthouse building in the Santa Ana Civic Center.

Last year, Congress approved $103 million for the project, and excavation was scheduled to begin in January and construction in April.

But the remaining $25.2 million that was needed to have the project fully funded fell victim to Republican budget-cutters, including Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), in whose district the courthouse would be built. All of the other members of the Orange County congressional delegation likewise voted to slash $218 million from the Treasury budget. Dornan and Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) said they expected a House-Senate conference committee to simply eliminate more than $218 million in projects elsewhere that had been added to the public works list by the Senate.

But when the conference committee met Thursday night to decide on the specific cuts, the Santa Ana courthouse was among the casualties.

When the measure was returned for Tuesday's vote, half of the Orange County delegation members switched their votes.

Cox and Reps. Ron Packard (R-San Clemente) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) voted against the bill containing the cuts, while Reps. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), Jay Kim (R-Yorba Linda) and Dornan voted with the majority in favor.

Brian C. Keeter, Dornan's aide, said the congressman delivered an angry speech Tuesday on the House floor that criticized the conference committee's attack on the courthouse appropriation.

But Keeter said Dornan believed that for him to vote against the downsized appropriations bill after calling for budget cutting "would open him to criticism" by those who would charge that he was putting the interests of his district above the national interest.

By Tuesday evening GSA Administrator Johnson was being applauded for saving the courthouse.

"I think it is wonderful. Roger has always been a friend of Orange County," said Santa Ana City Councilman Miguel A. Pulido Jr.

Feinstein said she sent a letter to Johnson on Monday appealing for his assistance after the conference committee withdrew funding from construction projects in the districts of Congress members who had pressed for budget cuts.

In the wake of last week's budget maneuvering, Feinstein blamed Dornan and Mike Huffington, a Republican challenger for her Senate seat who also favored the budget cut, for scuttling the courthouse. In retort, both said they were unaware that the courthouse had been in jeopardy.

Feinstein said Cox and Packard had asked her after last week's cut to try to save the courthouse project and she had approached both DeConcini and Johnson.

"I am very pleased," she said of Johnson's letter. " . . . GSA can proceed with the building and there is no need for delay."

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