Legislators Press Pleas for Pet Projects


One by one, like respectful schoolchildren, they queued up all day to plead for a slice of political pork from the shrinking state budget.

Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, took turns this week appealing to legislative budget writers to find money to finance their pet programs.

For many, delivery of scarce state money for local enterprises back home--expanded parks, unfinished school buildings, deteriorating swimming pools--may make the difference between victory and defeat next Election Day. At least that's the theory.

The state's proposed $56-billion budget is supposed to be enacted by July 1, although the deadline is often ignored. The finishing touches on the spending plan are done by Gov. Pete Wilson and leaders of both houses.

But this week, the seven-member Senate-Assembly conference committee that writes the framework for the budget held its annual "pork day"--the last chance for legislators to personally pitch their projects. And more than three dozen of them did.

For years, there was an unwritten rule that if pet projects received favorable committee treatment, the successful legislator would vote to approve the entire budget. But the tradition has taken a beating in recent times.

As the legislators lined up to make their cases, Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), chief Assembly budget negotiator, warned that California faces a revenue shortfall of about $800 million.

"The state is bankrupt," Vasconcellos said.

Though in agreement, budget committee Chairman Alfred Alquist (D-Santa Clara) reminded his pleading colleagues that "the art of politics is the ability to compromise."

Some, such as state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), made appeals for local and state projects at the same time. Citing high unemployment in her East Los Angeles district, Solis asked for an extra $569,000 in new high-tech equipment for prospective auto repair mechanics at East Los Angeles Community College. She also asked the committee to restore funds for the state Commission on the Status of Women.

Others, citing similar dire needs, went strictly for home district projects. Freshman Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles) requested $250,000 in tobacco tax funds to remodel the old William S. Hart home as part of a city of West Hollywood park project.

Conservatives jumped in too. State Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Orange), a stingy budget-cutter, asked for protection of an Anaheim program in which nonviolent juvenile offenders, such as graffiti vandals, receive punishment recommended by their victims. The cost is about $1 million.

"It's kind of a touchy-feely thing, but it seems to work," Hurtt said later. "It blew the Democrats away when I spoke for it."

There were also out-of-the-ordinary pitches. Assemblyman Jim Cunneen (R-Cupertino) asked for $30,000 to pay for a privately and publicly financed Internet computer center that would provide electronic maps and other information for Silicon Valley hikers and bicyclists.

The veterans made their annual pilgrimage, in some cases to protect their turf. State Sen. Henry Mello (D-Watsonville), a legendary provider of special projects for his Central California coastal district, asked the committee to prevent legislators from raiding $325,000 budgeted to buy land from a Santa Cruz County construction company for a wildlife habitat.

As usual, the committee delayed decisions until another day on what to do with the special requests--a tactic that builds pressure on legislators as final votes for the budget are lined up.

Occasionally, committee members tried to identify legislators who are regarded as potential opposition votes on the budget.

For example, the committee tried to pin down state Sen. Don Rogers (R-Tehachapi), who sought $3 million for an air-conditioning system at Antelope Valley Community College in Lancaster. Rogers said: "You know how hot it gets in the desert during the summer."

But state Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), a member of the committee, wanted to know whether Rogers intended to vote for the state budget.

"Well, possibly I will," Rogers replied. He paused and added a bit more forcefully, "Probably the chances are very good."

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