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Southern California’s 1994: From Big Shake to Big Flop : Year began with Northridge quake and ended with Orange County’s financial collapse--but forget all that as we offer our ’95 wish list

New Year’s Day is a time for reflection and resolution. Southern Californians enter 1995 looking back on a year that began with a catastrophic shake, rattle and roll. As have other disasters, the 6.8 Northridge earthquake brought out both the best and worst in people--communities came together in a time of need while some individuals engaged in price gouging on crucial supplies. The Clinton Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided aid quickly and, thanks to an infusion of federal highway funds, Caltrans managed to reopen the heavily damaged Santa Monica Freeway within three months.

Midway through the year another big Los Angeles story emerged when former football star O. J. Simpson was arrested in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend Ronald Goldman. The trial begins early this year.

In Washington, comprehensive health care reform died and welfare reform stalled. A new General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade cleared Congress, as did the Desert Protection Act and a crime bill that included a much-needed assault gun ban.

The November elections brought embarrassing moments for California. Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Mike Huffington staged the costliest senatorial campaign in U.S. history, together spending more than $40 million. The 1994 poor sportsmanship award goes to Huffington, who still refuses to concede defeat because of what he calls voter fraud.

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In that same election, California voters, lashing out against the federal government’s failure to contain illegal immigration, passed the mean-spirited Proposition 187, which bans illegal immigrants from receiving public education and non-emergency health care. Enforcement is on hold, fortunately, while the courts tackle the complicated legal issues raised by the initiative.

In the largest governmental fiscal failure in U.S. history, Orange County plunged into bankruptcy. Stunned residents learned that in the absence of effective oversight the county treasurer’s high-risk investment strategy had collapsed. Schools with money on deposit with the county put plans for new buildings on hold and worried about meeting payrolls. The county considered what assets to sell and how far it could trim services. The loss of more than $2 billion promised pain for years to come.

But enough of looking back. What’s ahead? Will the new GOP majority in Congress stage a quiet revolution of meaningful change or a hollow political insurrection designed to topple a Democratic President? Americans voted for change in November, and change surely will be the yardstick for 1995. With that in mind, here’s our governmental wish list for the year.

Tax cuts: The Republican sweep has put tax cuts back on the Washington agenda. Dueling tax cut proposals from Republicans and Democrats, both based on funny math, are jeopardizing the nation’s commitment to deficit reduction. Dare we replay the cut-taxes, feed-the-deficit fiasco of the Reagan years? Please, no.

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Welfare reform: Changes are needed to reduce dependency and encourage productivity, but the new GOP majority in Congress must stop its nonsensical rhetoric about building orphanages and taking children away from their poor mothers. Consensus is possible on such practical suggestions as time limits, work requirements, training programs, health care and other support to help get people off the welfare rolls.

Social Security and Medicare: Spending on these and other entitlement programs is taking an ever-larger share of the national budget. A bipartisan commission on entitlements recently recommended changes to address the problem, but the reforms were immediately criticized by political cowards who dare not challenge powerful lobbyists, including senior citizens groups. The nation must implement reforms or these programs will cost it grievously.

Health care reform: The failure to pass comprehensive health reform during the last Congress should not end efforts to change a system that sorely needs fixing. Incremental health care reform is essential to keeping the deficit down over the long term. Legislation is needed for changes such as standardizing insurance paperwork to eliminate onerous and costly medical administration and creating insurance pools for small business.

Disaster insurance: The Northridge earthquake highlighted the need for a national disaster insurance program, which Congress has so far failed to take up. Many insurers in California, hard-hit by earthquake claims, now will not write new homeowner policies because to do so means they must also offer earthquake insurance, which they maintain is too costly for them. An insurance program covering national disasters would help build a reserve big enough for such emergencies.

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Los Angeles’ congressional delegation: Nearly a year after the Northridge earthquake, the state’s most populous county is still rebuilding and money is short. The initial federal response was swift and thorough, but estimates now indicate that the price tag to restore public facilities alone may soar billions above what has been allocated. The challenge now is to quantify legitimate needs and to persuade the new Congress and the Clinton Administration to meet them.

Gov. Pete Wilson: The good news is that state revenues are on the rise in California because the state is finally in a recovery after three years of recession. The bad news is that the $3-billion debt accumulated during the long downturn must be paid off. Now Wilson’s Task Force on California Tax Reform and Reduction is recommending tax cuts. We hope Sacramento will provide careful scrutiny.

The Legislature: Unfortunately, it can review nothing until Assembly Republicans and Democrats reach a compromise on whom the next Speaker will be. The 40-40 stalemate between supporters of San Francisco Democrat Willie Brown and backers of Rancho Cucamonga Republican Jim Brulte threatens to put just about everything--including the state budget--on hold. That could compound California’s problems, get voters angry at both parties and encourage more vengeful recall elections. Brown and Brulte are both pragmatic politicians and they respect each other. They can reach a deal.

Once it gets down to work, the Legislature should find the courage to lift the obstructionist state law that prohibits localities from imposing tighter gun restrictions than the state. Voters in cities plagued by gun violence should be able to impose limitations stricter than those in rural areas.

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The Public Utilities Commission: It is deregulating telephone and electric services, which will affect every consumer and business in the state. The agency must become more accessible and open its procedures.

The Constitutional Revision Commission: We look forward to its preliminary recommendations to reform California’s unwieldy and increasingly unworkable Constitution.

Caltrans: Retrofitting of the state’s highways must remain a priority. A Times study shortly after the Northridge earthquake found that about 80% of the 1,300 most vulnerable freeway bridges and overpasses had not been repaired since the state began a freeway retrofitting program after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Los Angeles City Hall: The city lost out on $100 million in federal help when it failed to win an “empowerment zone” designation. No one in city government can deny that the L.A. application was weak compared to other cities’. Some of the blame lies in shameless turf competition and a lack of cohesiveness. Eastside, Westside, Valley, South Side. One city, remember? The Clinton Administration says it will ask Congress for a special empowerment zone just for Los Angeles. Mayor Richard Riordan and the rest of City Hall, as well as the L.A. congressional delegation, must push for it.

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The Los Angeles Police Commission: It is encouraging that this body, which legally oversees the LAPD but usually has been cowed by strong-willed chiefs, has decided to monitor implementation of the reforms recommended by the Christopher Commission after the Rodney King beating. We hope it is true to its word--and will make evaluations public.

The public schools: The clock is ticking on public school education reform. Amid renewed proposals to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District looming in Sacramento, clear results are needed. LEARN (Los Angeles Alliance for Restructuring Now) is going to need more than a good luck wish in 1995, and it has more than luck going for it, thanks to the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg’s $53-million challenge grant to Los Angeles County schools to aid reform.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority: Problems with faulty tunnels and flooding prompted a reorganization of the agency. But that’s only a start. The MTA will be closely watched this year to make sure its subway construction headaches of 1994 are not merely symptoms of bigger problems.

Orange County Supervisors: The resignation of Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron clearly was necessary after the financial debacle caused by the way he handled the county’s investment funds. Now the new chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, Gaddi Vasquez, and his colleagues must be prepared to be closely watched all year long regarding their handling of the recovery efforts. The hands-off approach that allowed Citron to lead the county down a fiscal primrose path clearly won’t work now.

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One thing about 1994: It wasn’t dull. Here’s to a slightly more serene 1995.


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