Is non-partisanship possible?

Anthony Lewis

February 18, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — PETE WILSON, California's new Republican governor, has one picture behind his desk: of Ronald Reagan. In his inaugural speech last month he hailed Reagan. But among former governors he also praised Democrat Pat Brown and Earl Warren, the great liberal Republican.

Wilson is coming on as something unusual in American politics: non-partisan. In a rush of early actions there has been hardly a whiff of ideology. He put a Democrat in his cabinet, and he proposed new programs for prenatal and child care.

Is non-partisanship possible? I asked in an interview the other day. He replied that some party conflict was inevitable, for example on reapportionment. California, gaining seven seats in the House, will soon have to redraw congressional district lines.

"But I have consciously sought to minimize partisan friction," Wilson said. Voters, he said, had "an accurate perception" that important issues were not being resolved in part because politicians spent "a great deal of time and energy on partisan gamesmanship."

Two colossal problems confronted him when he left the Senate and took office as governor on Jan. 7. California was going to be $7 billion short of revenue over the next 18 months. And after four years of drought it faced a critical water shortage.

Wilson proposed some modest tax increases and lots of budget cuts. The cuts hit some sensitive areas. For one, he proposed zero funding of mandatory provisions for cost-of-living increases.

Welfare payments to families would also be trimmed, by $61 a month. The governor justified that cut by saying California's payments in the program of Aid for Dependent Children had risen 150 percent in the last 15 years, and become a disincentive to employment.

But at the same time he proposed a series of programs for what he called "prevention" instead of "remedial actions with big price tags but uncertain results." Altogether, the new programs would cost $200 million. They focus on children.

One new program would establish a public-private system of medical insurance for poor women, covering prenatal care. Others would establish health and social services in schools, and add money for Head Start.

Wilson proposed funds for mental health counseling in elementary schools, saying "I want to discover that a child is suffering from depression that prevents learning when she is 6 -- not when she is 16."

And he urged a substantial increase for contraceptive services and family planning education, "among the most sensible and humane investments we can make in our strategy of prevention."

When drug-addicted women give birth to damaged children, he said, the women should be counseled and treated. He said, "Rehabilitation is our best assurance against their delivery of a second addicted newborn."

The water problem is daunting. California is in the grip of its worst drought since the 1930s -- when, Wilson noted, the state "had one-fifth of the population we do now."

The first step, he said, is "to assure the health and safety, the sanitation of all Californians. Then you're in the business of apportioning economic hardship. Nature has already done a considerable amount of that."

What about novel ideas, like water desalination?

"There's no doubt of the ability to desalinize sea water," he said.

"The difference between Santa Barbara and Saudi Arabia is that the Saudis know they need water, and they also know it ain't going to rain there -- not next year or the next hundred. They don't know that in Santa Barbara. You know, it may rain next year! So Santa Barbara has to think: My God, is it worth this investment? Again, it's economics."

Would a desalination plant need a nuclear or oil-fired electric power plant? I asked. Neither is a realistic possibility now, he said, in a state with serious air quality problems. "Maybe natural gas would be feasible."

Wilson won points from environmentalists by calling for a new state environmental protection agency and shifting pesticide control to it from the Agriculture Department. He also appointed a noted conservationist, Douglas Wheeler of the World Wildlife Fund, as director of natural resources.

The Democrats control both houses of the California Legislature. So far they have been friendly to the new governor. It seems hard to believe that the era of good feeling can last. But perhaps the deliberately unexciting Pete Wilson has found a way to lead the country's largest state through a hard time.

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