A Day of Pleas and Pork

One by one, 58 state legislators came hat in hand before the six Solomons this past week to plead for their pet projects--a swimming pool here, a hiking trail there, and parks, community centers and museums all over the state. The supplicants were making their cases to a handful of lawmakers selected by the leadership to constitute the Senate-Assembly budget conference committee, and this was the first day of their session. Officially, it's called Member's Day, but around the Capitol it is better known as Pork Day.

Sometimes there was a wink or a sly smile as Senate and Assembly members stressed the importance of the projects, mostly in their home districts. When Assemblyman Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino) appealed for $464,000 for improvements to a golf course, he said, "I've used the golf course occasionally, once in a while, so it's a good project."

State Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco) sought a "birthday present" as he prepares to leave the Legislature because of term limits. His request included $200,000 for restoration of Lake Merced, "which I note has no significance except that it's a block from my home."

With Democrats in control, it's a safe bet that the conference committee will grant the best plums to fellow Democrats, and particularly to people like Baca, who is in a tough race for a state Senate seat this year. The financing of local projects helps bolster the idea that a lawmaker has real clout in Sacramento and should be returned there for the good of the district.

What may be more notable, however, is that fewer than half of the lawmakers personally appeared before the conference committee. And some who did appealed not for home district projects but on behalf of broader issues, such as a return of $700 million in property tax revenue by the state to local governments.

Many of the legislators' pets were worthy ones, already included in the separate Senate and Assembly versions of the $78-billion state budget to finance state operations through the fiscal year beginning July 1. Since the recession of the early 1990s, there has been precious little state help for such projects.

The conference committee will reconcile differences in the two versions of the budget, and the resulting document will be submitted to the full Senate and Assembly for approval. Only then will the real budget battle begin. With the spending bill needing a two-thirds vote for approval, minority Republicans can threaten to block passage unless they like what they see.

In the end, it appears the big decisions will be made once again in the "Big Five," a negotiating group consisting of the top two Democrats and Republicans of each house and Gov. Pete Wilson. Wilson and fellow Republicans are insisting that much of the budget surplus be spent on repeal of most or all of the state vehicle license fee, the so-called car tax. Democrats want to use much of that money for increased aid to local schools and restoration of the renters' tax credit. So all signs now point toward another long and unfortunate budget deadlock.

This being election year, each side will be tempted to posture for political advantage. But the voters tend to blame both sides when there is a budget impasse. It would be far better for California if lawmakers and the governor's office tackle those issues now and settle them before July 1. As for those pork projects, alas for Democrats, the governor is likely to have the last laugh. After he wields his veto power, there might not be much bacon to bring home.

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