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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Bush: Beware of conducting anti-California vendetta

May 08, 2001

There is no longer much doubt that George W. Bush is as close as any recent president to conducting a vendetta against a single state — California.

Only united, courageous action by California's 51 (soon to become 52 again) members of the House can cause a reversal or mitigation of what is now an obvious policy.

How do we know there's an undeclared White House campaign against this, the nation's largest state?

It's not just that Bush's hand-picked chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission consistently refuses to allow discussion of a firm cap on wholesale interstate power — a tactic that could instantly end the hemorrhage of electricity moving from California power plants to other states. It's not just that FERC steadily acknowledges there has been market manipulation by power producers and natural gas suppliers, but places the cost to Californians at a small fraction of the amount cited by the state's Independent System Operator.

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It's not just that when Vice President Dick Cheney met with Western members of Congress to discuss energy the other day, he banned all Californians from the meeting, then denied he had done so.

This campaign extends well beyond energy, too, making it look like a grudge attack stemming from the fact that Al Gore's 12 percent vote margin in California made Bush the first modern president elected without even a popular plurality.

The proposed Bush budget cuts funding for rapid transit and it cuts police hiring. Those trimmed programs hit hardest here, but they affect other states. A more direct blow is the lopping of $135 million from federal money given states for imprisoning felons who are illegal aliens. More than 40 percent of such prisoners are held in California; that means a quick $60 million hit for this state.

Then there's the matter of earthquake insurance on public buildings. The proposed Bush budget wants them each to be insured, not to remain subject to rebuilding with federal help. Anyone who's tried to buy earthquake insurance for a home knows what it costs and how little it covers. If cities, counties, schools and the state have to put out for quake insurance, they'll have far less to spend on retrofitting the same buildings to make them safer.

Many will remain unsound.

So Bush's cuts — designed to finance his pet tax-cut program — hit harder at California than any other state.

But California also has more people in Congress than any other state. The 20 California Republicans in the House occupy key committee and subcommittee chairmanships. Some are high up in the GOP leadership.

They can make a difference if they exert their influence. The fact that a few of them spoke up for electricity price caps in late April is most likely the prime reason FERC has just made a small move in that direction.

It would take courage for Republicans to criticize and even oppose a president of their own party. Democrats did that to Bill Clinton all the time, and so do state legislators in California, who take constant potshots at Gov. Gray Davis. But historically, Republicans rarely take on their party's leaders.

Example: Every Californian in the House last year signed a letter protesting a Clinton administration proposal to force private earthquake insuring of public buildings. The California unity nixed the idea at that time. When Bush revived the notion, no Republican would sign a new letter virtually identical to the one they signed last year.

"They don't want to be in a position of criticizing the president at the very beginning of the administration," said the director of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, policy arm of the state's congressional delegation. Apparently not even to protect their constituents.

Bush aides, of course, deny any anti-California feeling. But preliminary plans for new military base closures call for more hits in California than anywhere else. And both Bush and Cheney say the energy mess is California's own fault and Californians alone must fix it.

It's an attitude akin to ex-President Gerald Ford's refusal to help New York City out of a 1970s-era financial crisis. "Ford to NY: Drop Dead," headlined the New York Daily News.

So far, there have been no such pungent headlines here. But there could be.

Bush may figure he can win the White House again without California in 2004, as he barely did last year. But discarding 55 electoral votes willy-nilly can be risky, especially when it's unlikely a third-party candidate will be around next time to siphon votes away from Democrats, as Ralph Nader did in 2000. Had only a third of Nader's votes gone Democratic, Bush would have lost New Hampshire, West Virginia and Florida. Take any one of those states out of the Bush column and we'd now be discussing President Gore.

Which means Bush would be well-advised to tread lightly in his campaign against California — the one his spokesmen claim exists only in paranoid imaginations. The tactic could be political suicide even if this state's Republicans in Congress often don't dare speak up for their constituents.

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