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Knowing When to Hold ‘Em and Fold ‘Em

When the end came, sometime in the very early hours Wednesday, Gov. Pete Wilson raised a white flag and surrendered. Even a feisty Marine knows when he’s cornered and can’t fight his way out.

Practical politics prevailed. Democrats were willing to let the governor flail away for days in his corner--literally his corner office in the Capitol--pinned down and helpless. Wisely, the presidential candidate decided he’d be better off campaigning this weekend in Maine, New Hampshire and Iowa.

Wilson’s options came down to this: Accept a $57-billion state budget already 33 days late or continue to hold out for some companion “trailer bills.” Democrats swore they’d never vote for the trailer bills, asserting the measures were philosophically repugnant and merely designed as bragging points for the governor’s White House bid. One bill would have cut off prenatal care for illegal immigrants. Others contained such Potomac buzzwords as “mandate relief” and “block grants.”

Trying to barter, Wilson offered Democrats a sop for strapped Los Angeles County--$50 million in bailout money raided from sales tax funds that voters had earmarked for transit. Los Angeles Democrats said they were insulted; they demanded a much bigger raid. Wilson finally realized he never would get the trailer bills, no matter how much L.A. bailout money he offered.

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Up went the white flag.

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This has not been a good year for Wilson in the Capitol. His ambitious legislative agenda--tax cuts plus education, tort and environmental “reforms"--is in peril. That’s what happens when you’re off running for President. Democrats had the upper hand all the way in the final budget battle.

First, Wilson got rolled by Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward). The governor thought he had negotiated another permanent cut in welfare checks. But Lockyer interpreted the cut as temporary, valid only for a year. Wilson decided it wasn’t worth fighting about.

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Then Assembly Democratic Leader Willie Brown snookered the governor last Saturday by quickly taking up a generous school aid bill. This had been Wilson’s deal sweetener for Democrats. But once it passed, Republicans lost their best leverage over Democrats. Brown also knew that Wilson would hammer Democrats if they continued to block the welfare cut, so he orchestrated its passage and switched the focus to the L.A. bailout.

In the jockeying, Wilson had asked Republicans to hold up voting on the budget until Democrats passed all the trailer bills. Give up, Democrats told him. And he finally did, ultimately claiming credit for “a very good budget.” But it was “absolutely mystifying,” Wilson told reporters, why Los Angeles Democrats “wound up giving the shaft to their own county [by rejecting his bailout offer]. . . . It was the height of arrogance.”

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Arrogance in the Capitol is not unique to one regional bloc or political party. Routinely missing the July 1 constitutional deadline for enactment of a state budget--five times in this decade by an average of 30 days--is pretty arrogant.

So what if some arbitrary deadline is missed, most legislators ask. But they don’t query the thousands of pharmacists, health care providers and business owners who sell their goods and services to the state and get stiffed while the politicians ruminate.

Negotiations between Wilson and legislative leaders didn’t even begin until two days before the signing deadline. “We should have been negotiating long before we did,” Assembly Speaker Doris Allen (R-Cypress) told reporters Monday. “The reason we weren’t was the governor was off campaigning.”

But Wilson shares only a tiny part of the blame. The Legislature traditionally dawdles through much of winter and early spring.

Even so, most of the blame does not fall directly on this current cast of characters. Blame California’s two-thirds vote requirement for passage of a budget, the only such requirement in the nation.

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Blame the demise of the “imperial speakership,” a la Willie Brown, which the GOP sought but which has weakened the power of leaders to deliver votes with reward and punishment.

Blame term limits, which have resulted in a less experienced and more unstable Assembly.

Blame Proposition 13, which drastically cut property taxes and left local governments in disarray, dependent upon Sacramento.

Beyond that, blame the end of the Cold War, which plummeted California into a recession, reducing tax revenues and creating big government deficits.

Still, even given all this, the Capitol’s institutional arrogance is inescapable.

The budget fight had superior games players, but no heroes. Wilson was wise to surrender and declare victory.


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