The Last Domino

April 04, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

SAN FRANCISCO. — The new governor of California, Pete Wilson, is facing crippling budget problems that must make him wish he was still a senator back in Washington, talking instead of doing.

Most governors, county executives and mayors would rather be someplace else these days than standing in the path of President Bush's newest offensive, ''Operation Deficit Storm.'

Deficit Storm, the war going on at home, is based on an outdated bit of 1960s military theory that ended up being called the ''domino theory.'' America's leaders believed then that if one country, say Laos, went Communist, the one next door would inevitably fall, and then the next and the next and so on Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, India would all go Communist, all the way to San Diego, the city of which Wilson was mayor for a decade.

This time, though, the domino theory is proving to be true. The federal government drops the first domino, cutting taxes or refusing to raise them, but, at the same time, mandating that states continue to raise spending on such things as schools, prisons, roads and, especially, medical care for the elderly.

The states then pass along mandates and aid reductions to counties, cities and towns. The last domino usually hits homeowners in the form of local school taxes.

In California, where property taxes were more or less frozen for many, many people of a certain age 12 years ago by Proposition 13, Mr. Wilson was hit by a deficit domino, a cash shortfall, of almost $10 billion. He then offered comprehensive spending cuts that included a $2 billion cut in public school funding. (The governor wants to suspend another state proposition, a 1988 referendum numbered 98, guaranteeing schools a fixed percentage of state revenues.)

In making his proposal, at a time when California school enrollment is increasing by 200,000 pupils a year from kindergarten through high school, Mr. Wilson said some things that indicate he was in Washington too long.

''In a time of crisis, we cannot exempt school boards from having to make the kind of tough decisions everyone else is having to make,'' he said the other day. ''When people tell me we are hurting the children, I say, 'What about the children of the people paying the taxes?' Those are the same children, it seems to me.''

Not usually, Governor. More often than not, particularly since Proposition 13 froze property taxes at 1 percent of purchase prices. It was (and is) often foolhardy for older Californians to sell their homes after their children finished school and moved away.

So property taxpayers tend to be older and quite a bit better off than the parents of public schoolchildren. The property owners, parents of the baby boomers everyone had to chip in to educate, also tend to be white and in significantly better economic situations than the parents of the Hispanic, Asian and black children filling the classrooms of elementary and high schools.

Operation Deficit Storm, pre-sold by the anti-government cliches President Reagan, is actually risking one final instant cliche a program cleverly designed to soak the poor. Drown the poor might be even more accurate.

Pete Wilson's current successor as mayor of San Diego, Maureen O'Connor, is providing a lesson in how it works by her reaction to legislation and regulations in response to five years of drought.

She is refusing to implement water-saving measures, saying such things should be voluntary and those who use more than their share will pay fines of 20 percent or so on their water bills.

So there will be no drought for those who can afford the fines. In San Diego, neither God nor Mother Nature can govern the appetites of the rich.

''Voluntary,'' ''privatization,'' ''Thousand Points of Light,'' are all parts of the vocabulary of soaking the poor. Them that has, gets; I suppose that is another cliche.

The crippling of government services in progress in California and most of the country is done with full knowledge that the public sector can redistribute some wealth but the private sector never will. Americans with any kind of wealth don't want it redistributed.

Poor kids without enough education to get or do a decent job are not their problem -- yet.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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