San Diego Union Tribune

May 16, 2004

2004 VOTE
California wins some, loses some under Bush


WASHINGTON In the six remaining months before November's election, Californians will hear that President Bush has invested heavily in the state's classrooms, worked to prevent wildfires in the state, and won tax cuts that have retained businesses and helped families make ends meet.

They will also hear that Bush ignores some of California's most pressing problems, that his policies are destroying the state's environment and that he visits California only to raise money.

When a president seeks re-election, part of his game plan is to focus attention, money and policies on those voters most likely to help him stay in the White House. Given that political necessity, Bush has undoubtedly made decisions that favored some states and interest groups at the expense of heavily Democratic California. At the same time, other Bush policies have been an undeniable boost to the Golden State.

"Californians have had an opportunity to witness President Bush's leadership on issues of significance to their state," said Tracey Schmitt, a Bush campaign spokeswoman. And his "pro-growth policies are creating an environment where California's small businesses can flourish."

Conventional wisdom says that because California remains solidly Democratic, the state's 55 electoral votes will go to John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. No one identifies California as one of the election battleground states where Bush and Kerry are focusing their efforts.

Still, some observers, mostly Republicans, predict Bush has a chance in the state.

One barometer of presidential attention is money. Bush argues that he lavishes it on California.

The White House this year would give California nearly $2 billion to implement Bush's "No Child Left Behind Act" and more than $18 billion for Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor.

But critics point out that Medicaid spending is largely determined by caseload formula, and that the money for the Bush education initiative, while a slight increase over current spending, is less than what Congress envisioned when the program was established in 2001.

Another Bush plan would give more homeland security money to states, such as California, that face a high risk of terrorist attacks.

But while Bush says his tax cuts have saved money for nearly 20 million Californians and helped more than 3 million of the state's businesses, experts aren't convinced that his cuts have contributed much to California's economy.

"The problems in California run particularly deep," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "More aid to California around the dial would have made things a little easier on state government."

California has several pressing budget needs that the White House has largely ignored.

The president this year is proposing a transportation plan that would take up to $10 billion from California roads and send some of that money to other states. He opposes a plan that would help restore California's 21 crumbling missions. He wants to eliminate a program that reimburses California for the cost of jailing criminal illegal immigrants. His budget would slash by one-third the money that thousands of fire departments rely on to keep their communities safe, including at least 10 in San Diego that fought last year's wildfires.

And many California leaders will never forget that at the height of the state's energy crisis, the White House rejected calls to intervene.

"He's engaged in a policy of benign neglect for California," said Leon Panetta, who was President Clinton's chief of staff. "When you think of our needs . . . there does not seem to be a central focus on trying to help the state."

While some also fault the Clinton administration for not stepping in during the early months of the energy crisis, few argue that he tended closely to California's needs.

Meanwhile, many environmentalists, as well as some outdoorsmen typically aligned with Republicans, are angry about Bush policies they say are destroying the state's wetlands, forests and open spaces.

"No one takes Bush seriously as the environmental president," said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at the University of California Irvine.

Gerry Parsky, Bush's state campaign co-chairman, counters that because Bush is a Westerner, "he appreciates the need to preserve open space." Schmitt says the Healthy Forest Restoration Act that Bush signed in December will prevent fires in the West by spending money to clear fire-prone brush and trees.

Parsky also says that Bush's appointments of several Californians to high-level posts have given the state a voice in the White House. Among those appointments: Ruben Barrales, the president's intergovernmental affairs liaison; Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta; Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman; Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi; and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

There is no denying that Bush has sometimes chosen battleground states over California: The administration forced the state to add ethanol to its gasoline to reduce air pollution, a move that helps corn growers in key Midwestern states, but that critics said would drive up prices at California pumps. The president also blocked oil drilling off the coast of Florida a state he narrowly won in 2000 but is fighting California's efforts to block federal drilling there.

"Whenever there's a conflict between California and another state, Bush tends to side with the other state, especially if it's in the Midwest," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, an analysis of legislative and congressional elections.

Bush has visited California 17 times as president. Clinton made 26 trips to the state before his 1996 re-election. There are some who believe Bush's visits are largely to raise money he's raised $12 million in the state so far for re-election.

"He comes because there are Republicans in the state who will write him a check," said Zoe Lofgren, the San Jose Democrat who chairs the California Democratic congressional delegation.

Though Bush lost California by more than 11 percentage points in 2000 and although a recent Los Angeles Times poll found Kerry beating him 53 percent to 40 percent in the state GOP leaders insist Bush will spend even more in California than the $10.8 million he spent four years ago.

Said state GOP chairman Duf Sundheim: "Given the number of electoral college votes here, you get more bang for your buck in California."