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Wilson’s Big Week: Weird and Weirder

The last few days in California’s capital have seemed surreal. Just start with the central fact that Pete Wilson--certifiably the most unpopular first-term governor in modern history--got himself sworn in for a second term.

At his inaugural gala, bland Pete entertained 4,000 amazed people with a soft-shoe song and dance. “Welfare rights, Assembly fights, I got the California Blues. . . . Dirty tricks, all the joys of politics. . . . We beat the California Blues, ohhh yeahhhhh.”

To be sure, the governor was teamed with his talented wife, Gayle. But the next day he was on his own after the formal swearing-in and delivered, with uncharacteristic emotion, the best speech I had ever heard him give. True, this was a highly partisan crowd. But not even Republicans normally interrupt this man 45 times with applause, cheers and whistles.

As Wilson focused on teen pregnancy and education, I couldn’t help but wonder how he might have fared on Election Day if Democrat Kathleen Brown had emphasized these issues, playing to her strength instead of trying to challenge the GOP incumbent on crime and illegal immigration. At a minimum, his victory margin probably would have been less than the final 15 points.

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The heavens were with Wilson Saturday as he delivered his inaugural address. A storm unexpectedly parted before it reached Sacramento, leaving a refuge of clear skies.

On Monday things changed, but they still were bizarre.

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The big clock in the Capitol news conference room fittingly was off by several hours as officials tried to explain the state’s revenue numbers and Wilson’s proposed income tax cut.

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George P. Shultz, a member of the governor’s task force that recommended the tax cut, emphatically insisted that although the state is paying off $7 billion it borrowed last year to make ends meet, this “has nothing to do with debt.” We reporters had a tough time grasping that, how the state could borrow billions and be paying hundreds of millions in interest, and there wasn’t debt.

This was George Shultz, the former secretary of state and, before that, chairman of President Ronald Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board. It reminded me of listening to Reagan officials 14 years ago trying to explain how they could cut taxes, increase military spending and also balance the budget--the old “voodoo economics.” When Reagan entered the Oval Office, the annual federal budget deficit was $79 billion; when he left it was $162 billion. During that time, the national debt tripled from $908 billion to $2.6 trillion.

Of course, this ancient history has nothing to do with Wilson economics in 1995, except to remind us that tax collections and government spending seldom wind up as projected and that politicians sometimes cut taxes and later regret it when they can’t balance the books.

Indeed, part of the week’s weirdness has been the computing of the tax cut. Shultz announced the three-year impact of the 15% cut at $9 billion. The next day, Wilson scaled down the projection to $7.6 billion--an overnight loss of $1.6 billion.

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Someone--a Republican--slipped me a 1991 report by Wilson’s Finance Department warning of a “growing squeeze” between “taxpayers and tax receivers.” It concluded that “even with an economic rebound . . . demographic trends” would result in a $20-billion revenue gap by the year 2000. My source wondered how the state could afford a tax cut.

A Finance official responded that things aren’t that bad anymore, largely because Wilson is changing “demographic trends” by cutting health and welfare and providing tax incentives for taxpayers to stay in California.

But some may suspect voodoo.

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The strangest place in the Capitol has been the Assembly, what little remains of it. Wilson worked a miracle, of sorts, by forcing Democrats and Republicans to call a truce in the Speakership fight so he could deliver his State of the State Address in their chamber. The GOP had refused to show up since Dec. 5.

Twice as Wilson spoke--this time in his customary humdrum--a huge rear window crashed open during violent winds, jarring a glazed-eyed audience. A record rainfall soon flooded the Capitol basement, threatening the electrical plant and forcing an early end to the governor’s post-speech reception in the Rotunda.

Within 24 hours, Wilson was back in a plaid shirt and blue parka, solemnly surveying yet another natural disaster and getting on television. The inaugural, the State of the State, the governor’s $56.3-billion budget, all were fast fading from memory, like an odd dream.

It will be many months before we know where all the rhetoric and proposals lead. That will depend on leadership.

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