Budget's Local Impact Would Be Felt Indirectly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although the state is relatively flush with cash for the first time in recent years, the proposed budget unveiled Wednesday by Gov. Pete Wilson offered a mixed bag to the San Fernando and surrounding valleys.

The Valley would get less this year than in the past for capital improvement projects at Cal State Northridge and local community colleges, while funding for such agencies as the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy would remain at current levels.

But the $61.5-billion budget also calls for sales tax exemptions for some companies that manufacture aircraft parts and enhanced enterprise zones for aerospace companies--two initiatives that could be a boon to the Antelope Valley.

And it sets aside $17 million for youth detention camps in Los Angeles County--many of them in the Valley area--and could direct millions more to water-reclamation projects in the East Valley.

That's if lawmakers agree to Wilson's budget in the months of negotiation that lie ahead.

Valley-area Republican legislators said the relative paucity of Valley-specific improvement projects in the budget will be forgotten quickly if proposed 15% tax cuts are implemented and local schools and police get the extra money the governor proposes.

"I think we'll do quite well," said state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), whose district includes Chatsworth and Castaic. She said increases in education spending statewide would translate into more computers in local classrooms and more modern equipment.

But Valley Democrats criticized Wilson's tax cut, saying it could cause a reduction in school spending. "This budget is very similar to what [U.S. House Speaker Newt] Gingrich did in Washington: It's a tax break for the wealthy," said the Assembly's Democratic leader, Richard Katz of Sylmar.

Added Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica): "This budget is very hard on people who are less affluent." Kuehl said tax cuts might appeal to residents in the short term, but added: "I'm hoping people in the Valley will be fresh enough off the recession to remember that there, but for the grace of God, go I."

Katz, Kuehl and other Democrats charged the governor with playing fast and loose with the numbers, saying a 15% tax cut phased in over three years--as proposed by the Wilson budget--would result in $6 billion less for education by the end of the decade.

Even so, Wilson's theme of reestablishing California's allure to commerce by reducing the role of government played well among Valley business leaders. In many ways, the Valley typifies the economic rise and decline of California, where pockets of decay fester alongside prosperous suburbs.

John Rooney, president of the Valley Economic Development Center, applauded the budget's theme of helping to create jobs and keep them in California.

"It's right on the money," he said. "A tax cut and more money for schools would be a tremendous boost."

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Rooney said a recent survey of Valley business leaders revealed that schools and public safety top their list of concerns, adding that one-third of local companies considering expansion planned to do it somewhere else.

"In the long term, tax cuts and better schools are the kinds of things that get businesses to rethink leaving," he said.

Brian Farrell, president of Calabasas-based video game maker T.HQ Inc., said electronics and entertainment companies like his are tied to California. "I think you have to be in California," he said. "It's the entertainment capital of the world."

But, he said, a sour business climate could force many of the more mobile, entrepreneurial companies to move across the state line, as many did in the early 1990s. Tax cuts could "cement" the relationship between electronics, entertainment and the state of California, he said.

Farrell, who lives in Woodland Hills, was also encouraged by increased spending for public safety programs, but doubted that the modest hikes proposed in education spending would make much of a difference.

"I'm a product of the public school system, but I have children in private school because of concerns over safety and class size," the Taft High graduate said. "I think the public schools in our area are generally doing our children a disservice."

Assemblywoman Barbara Friedman (D-North Hollywood) shares Farrell's doubts, saying Wilson's budget does little to address concerns about class size. "For Valley parents with children in elementary school, their biggest concern is class size," she said. "That's the sort of thing we need to be working on."

Friedman was encouraged, however, by proposals to finance alternative education for students who are expelled from traditional schools.

For local colleges, the budget sets aside $279,000 to install new telecommunications equipment and lines at CSUN to update antiquated systems. It also earmarks $509,000 for new air conditioners at Pierce College and $283,000 for the same at Valley College. Glendale College would get $644,000 for an addition to the aviation arts building.

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But students at those schools would also benefit if Wilson's promise not to increase fees survives. Carmelita Thomas, vice president of academic affairs at Pierce College, said keeping fees unchanged would help boost enrollment.

"We welcome anything that will help maintain students' ability to go to school, which has steadily decreased over recent years," she said. "We're not growing this year, but I think we might next year."

And at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which cobbles together land for state parks in the mountains around the Valley, Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston said he was delighted to get the same appropriation as last year: $96,000 from the general fund, among the smallest of any state agency.

The conservancy's overall budget, which draws from a variety of sources, also remained unchanged at $580,000. "I am gratified by the support that allows us to go forward," Edmiston said. "At least this shows we're not too much of a drain on the taxpayers."

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