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California heads for a budget showdown.

Governor Pete Wilson says his initiative giving him control over the budget is needed to avert a fiscal train wreck; critics say it's simply a grab for power. Voters will decide in November.

At last count, fewer than one in four California voters thought Governor Pete Wilson was doing a good job using the considerable clout the already wields as chief executive of the nation's largest state. Now Wilson is asking for even more power.

Wilson, the former San Diego mayor and U.S. senator serving his second year as governor, appears to have qualified for the November ballot an initiative that would give him unilateral authority to cut the state's budget in fiscal emergencies or whenever he reached an impasse with the Legislature, which is now under Democratic control.

So far, Wilson's ballot measure is better known for provisions that would restructure the state's welfare program. The initiative, which Wilson also has proposed to the Legislature, would reduce AFDC grants by as much as 25 percent, deny aid to children born to women already on welfare, reward teen-age mothers who stay in school and penalize teen moms who drop out or leave home. The measure also would deny full grants to the poor who move to California; they would receive the same amount they would have been eligible for in their former state for their first year in California.

But over the long run, the budget powers provisions, if approved by the voters, could prove to be the more historic elements of Wilson's bold proposal. After all, even if the welfare plan were not part of the initiative, the governor could use the budget authority he is proposing to cut grants by 25 percent or more, if he wanted to.

Wilson says the power shift is needed because the Legislature has let California's budget get out of control. Last year, his first in office, Wilson faced a $14.3 billion shortfall and agreed to raise nearly $8 billion in taxes to help erase it. But that plan failed when continued sluggishness in the economy kept revenue flat from one year to the next. Now the state confronts a $10 billion gap between anticipated revenue and the cost of providing all current services, plus expected growth in caseloads, for another 12 months.

"Unless we slam on the braes, we're headed for a fiscal train wreck," Wilson said recently. "The current budget system simply doesn't work. It is in need of fixing. It is broken."

Critics of the initiative, which include public employee unions, the League of Women Voters, welfare rights organizations and a prominent watchdog group for the rights of children, describe it as a cynical power grab that would make Wilson dictator of California. Many academics agree that the measure would give Wilson powers unparalled by any other state executive.

"California's governor already is one of the most powerful," says Charles Prices, a political science professor at the California State University, Chico, who noted that most experts expect the state's newly imposed term limits to weaken the Legislature and strengthen the executive branch. "If the governor succeeds, he will be even more formidable in the budget process than he already is."

Allen Schic, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, described the proposal as a "questionable transfger of power" in a report prepared by the state Senate's Office of Research.

"Why should the governor's proposals have a special priority if the Legislature has not adopted a budget?" Schick asks. "I don't think that's cricket."

Specifically the intitiative would:

* Move the date on which the governor must submit a budget from Jan. 10 to March 1. This would reduce by about 50 days the time the Legislature has to consider the spending plan before the June 15 deadline for passage and give California lawmakers less time to pass a budget than any large state other than New York.

* Permit the govenor to declare a fiscal emergency and continue the previous year's budget when a new budget has not been passed and signed by the July 1 start of the fiscal year. To balance the budget, the govenor could propose cuts in any item not protected by the constitution. These reductions would take effect in 30 days unless the Legislature passed a budget and the govenor signed it.

* Allow the govenor to declare a fiscal emergency after a budget becomes law whenever revenues, expenditures or both are off by 3 percent or more. Cuts proposed by the govenor would take effect in 30 days unless the Legislature passed an alternative plan that was signed by the govenor. There would be no opportunity for a veto override.

* Allow the governor, during a fiscal emergency, the furlough or cut the salaries of employees not covered by a union contract to save up to 5 percent of their pay.

These fundamental but rather technical changes in the state constitution have taken a back seat in Wilson's rhetoric to a sexier thought less weighty provisions--a proposal to suspend the salaries, travel and living expenses of legislators and the govenor if the Legislature fails to pass a budget bill by the June 15 deadline.

Joel Fox, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation, named for the co-author of California's famous Proposition 13, approvingly describes the attempted slap at elected officials as a "guaranteed applause line."

It is also a guaranteed vote-getter. A recent survey by Mervin Field's California Poll found that 83 percent of the state's voters favored suspending the pay of officeholders when the budget is late, as it has been in all but four of the past 15 years. But other than this largely symbolic gesture, much of the rest of Wilson's initiative could be in deep trouble with the voters.

The same poll found that two-thirds of voters opposed giving the govenor the power to make unilateral cuts when a budget is late, and 78 percent were against allowing him to cut workers' salaries on his own.

Even the proposal to reduce welfare grants, a cause popular with politicians across the country, is not playing well with Californians. By a 61-34 margin, the state's voters opposed reducing welfare grants as a way to balance the budget. A whopping 72 percent agreed with the statement that children will "end up being the biggest losers" if benefits are cut to families on AFDC.

That theme will likely be the focus of the opposition campaign, to the extent that it mentions the welfare proposals at all. The effort, which will be funded largely by employee unions and Democratic lawmakers, probably will play up the idea of a Wilson "power grab."

Opposition strategies already are studying a similar Wilson gambit in his early years as mayor of San Diego, where, after winning election as a reformer following a city council scandal, Wilson asked the voters to drop their city manager style of government in favor of a strong chief executive with budget and veto powers. The voters rejected the proposal.

"This initiative grants almost dictatorial powers to the govenor to set the budget as he sees fit," says Drew Mendelson, a spokesman for the California State Employees Association. "It removes the checks and balances that ought to be established."

State workers are particularly incensed by Wilson's drive to cut their pay 5 percent. The govenor first proposed the pay reduction more than a year ago. He tried to extract it from the employees during collective bargaining. When that failed, he sought an edict from the Legislature. When the Legislature refused, Wilson tried to doit unilaterally but was rebuffed by the courts.

The unions are likely to put in big money to fund the campaign against the measure. They will be joined by the Catholic Church and a host of welfare rights and children's advocacy organizations.

Wilson's support, so far, is coming from big business. He raised more than $1 million to place the measure of the ballot (paying signature gatherers 75 cents a name), and much of that money came from California's largest corporations. Responding to personal pleas from the governor. Lockheed Corp., Pacific Telesis, Hughes Aircraft and others gave as much as $25,000 each.

The California Taxpayers Association, which represents business interests in the Capitol, was among the first to sign on as a supporter of the measure.

"The govenor's proposal is designed to give the Legislature--and the govenor--financial incentive to pass a state budget bill on time," says Larry McCarthy, the association's president. "The state's fiscal integrity has been threatened in the past by stalemates that have forced the state to go well into the first month of the new fiscal year without a budget and its authority to pay the bills."

With the new budget hanginging in the balance, many lawmakers fear Wilson and his Republican allies in the Legislature may deliberately blockk action in an effort to prompt the public into passing the initiative.

But again, the California Poll indicates that this strategy could backfire. The January survey found that voters, by a 54-32 margin, would tend to favor the Legislature's position in a budget stalemate over the governor's. One reason may be that only 22 percent of those surveyed thought the govenor was doing an "excellent" or "good" job as govenor. Another 36 percent described his performance as fair, while 36 percent said he was doing a poor job.

At least one of Wilson's Democratic critics says he thinks the initiative will fail and will go down as a huge political blunder for the govenor. Assemblyman Tom Bates of Oakland, one of the Legislature's most liberal members, says he thinks the measure will become a "tremendous organizing tool" to get poor people registered to vote and to the polls, possibly tipping the scales for the Democrats in legislative races and at the top of the ticket.

"It may be one of the best things that's happened to the Democrats," Bates says. "We should have paid him to put it on the ballot."

Daniel Weintraub is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
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Title Annotation:Governor Pete Wilson's bid for more budget power
Author:Weintraub, Daniel M.
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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