We Want It Now, and We Want It Free

NEAL R. PEIRCE

November 11, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Give us everything we need, from a reformed and affordable health-care system to good schools and safe streets. But don't dare send us the bill.

You can argue that's the message America's cynical, frustrated, angry voters telegraphed in last week's off-year elections.

Sen. Harris Wofford's stunning 55-to-45 percent win in Pennsylvania over ex-Attorney General Dick Thornburgh proved that Americans are getting ever more concerned by the issue George Bush hates to talk about: how to fix our malfunctioning national health-care system.

But are Americans ready to pay the cost of universally accessible medical care? Don't look to the Wofford campaign for a signal. If you want a sign of what happens to politicians who try to tackle their state's biggest problems with big-scale cures, take a look at the results in New Jersey, Louisiana and Mississippi.

In New Jersey, voters didn't get a direct crack at Democratic Gov. James Florio, chief author of last year's highly controversial $2.8 billion tax increase designed to cover a yawning deficit and channel money to underfunded inner-city school systems. His term runs through 1993. But the entire legislature was up for election this year, and enraged voters vented their anger by giving Republicans control of both the Senate and Assembly for the first time in 20 years -- and by such massive margins that Governor Florio's vetoes can easily be overridden.

Now New Jersey Republicans will have to figure out how to cover a huge, new deficit while following through on a promise to roll back nearly $600 million of the governor's tax increases. Whom do you skewer? Your own middle- to upper-income constituency, or poor people in the midst of a raging recession? Stay tuned.

Four years ago, Louisiana and Mississippi elected unconventional young executives. Charles ''Buddy'' Roemer took on and defeated Louisiana's master Cajun politician, Gov. Edwin Edwards. Mr. Roemer promised a purged and cleansed government, hard-to-to-swallow tax reform, radical educational and environmental reform. For a state perennially plagued by corruption, consistently lagging in basic literacy and facing environmental challenges, the agenda didn't seem a moment too soon.

But it didn't work. The legislature scuttled most of Governor Roemer's proposals, and the populace voted down tax boosts in special referenda. Turned Republican with President Bush's blessing, Mr. Roemer finished a weak third in the first gubernatorial go-round in October.

So now, in a November 16 runoff, Louisianans will choose between ex-Governor Edwards, seeking a comeback, and State Sen. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon who's seized on and inflamed people's resentment against welfare recipients and blacks. Louisiana's prospects of reform may be lost in a sea of sickening race-based rhetoric, maybe for a generation.

Ray Mabus ran a ''high-risk'' campaign for Mississippi's governorship in 1987, promising educational improvement and constitutional reform, vowing that ''Mississippi will never be last again!'' Legislative opposition, together with economic recession, scuttled most of Governor Mabus' hopes. He barely survived his own Democratic primary, then narrowly lost the general election to a previously little-known businessman, Kirk Fordice -- Mississippi's first Republican governor since 1874.

Mr. Fordice won by blasting career politicians, championing term limits and resorting to thinly veiled racial appeals (against welfare dependency, against quotas). It seems Mississippians may not care if their state stays ''last'' for a few more years.

Then there was the little-noticed vote in Missouri on a $385 million tax hike in sales, income and tobacco taxes to bring major changes in a state that has traditionally lagged on educational achievement. The proceeds would have helped cut class sizes, increase aid to poor districts, inaugurate new programs.

The Missouri referendum was so highly regarded it attracted top-drawer bipartisan support. It was backed by Republican Gov. John Ashcroft, this year's chair of the National Governors' Association and leader of the governors' 50-state education-reform agenda. But fixing the schools meant money. It would cost Missourians something. So they voted ''no,'' 2-to-1.

Texas voters, however, approved bonds totaling $1.1 billion to build prisons and $300 million for college loans.

So what about term limits -- the perfect vehicle, everyone's been saying, for people to vent their anger and frustrations about haughty politicians and a system they think ignores their interests?

The term-limits measure on the Washington state ballot was supposed to be the ultimate proof of that anger. Yet to almost universal surprise, it went down to defeat. Some people explained that the potential early political demise of Washington's own Tom Foley, the U.S. House Speaker, helped scuttle the proposal.

But there was another reason. Opponents warned that big, bad, parched California, its massive congressional delegation unencumbered by term limits, would soon outfox Washington and steal Washington's cherished birthright -- the water from the Columbia River.

It turns out Washingtonians may have voted down term limits not on grounds of democratic principle, the people's right to choose in any election. The Evergreen State voters probably said no because they feared it could cost them something.

M?

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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