Page One

Assembly candidates react to Davis speech

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Thursday January 10, 2002

Running for re-election with a $12-billion-plus budget hole is not an enviable position for an incumbent gearing up for a tough campaign. 

Gov. Gray Davis tried to shed the best light possible on his first term in office during his State of the State address Tuesday evening, promising to balance the budget with no new taxes. 

Is it possible? 

The Daily Planet asked the three local State Assembly hopefuls what they thought about the speech.  

The candidates: David Brown, former chief of staff to Supervisor Alice Lai Bitker, Loni Hancock, former Berkeley mayor and Charles Ramsey, trustee on the West Contra Costa School Board – will vie March 5 for Dion Aroner’s 14th Assembly District seat. Aroner is term-limited out of office. 



One way to plug the hole would be to raise taxes, not a popular stance for any candidate. 

“The budget I will submit to you in two days will be fair, will preserve the major gains of the last three years, will protect local government and will not increase taxes,” Davis told a less-than-enthusiastic legislature. 

While none of the three Assembly candidates proposed increasing personal income taxes, two had some thoughts about raising other taxes. 

Ramsey said he would look at an increase in sales taxes in order to stimulate the economy. The increased revenue should be used especially to stimulate the business sector which, in turn, will increase spending and tax revenues. Public works projects should also be encouraged. Building new schools, retrofitting bridges and expanding BART creates new jobs, which then increases spending and sales tax revenue, Ramsey said. 

Hancock said that one area in which she would like to see increased levies is taxing oil as it comes out of the ground. “There’s no oil severance tax (in California),” Hancock said, noting that in other oil-producing states, there is a small tax per barrel of oil extracted from the ground. 

Brown said he would be “hesitant to increase taxes,” but noted that he would have to see if Davis could plug the deficit hole in other ways. 

Program cuts 

Davis promised program cuts to help close the gap. Where would the candidates make those cuts? It took some prodding to get the candidates to respond to the unpopular question. 

When they did answer, both Hancock and Brown pointed to the prison system. Brown called for a cap on spending in the correctional system. “With Proposition 36 (which supports treatment for drug offenders rather than jail time) there’s a slow down of inmates,” Brown said. 

While Brown said no cuts should be made in school spending, he argued that the money can be spent more efficiently. Currently the state requires expenditures on certain “categorical” programs. Brown suggests that more flexible decision making in school spending might be permitted at a local level, as long as there is accountability. “Ultimately, it’s got to be kids and classrooms first,” he said. 

Hancock said she would “not prioritize prison construction.” Rather, she said, “I’d like to see school construction.” 

While Ramsey did not name specific areas in which he would make cuts, he acknowledged that they must be done. Citing his experience on the West County School Board, he said that when he first came to the district, it was in distress and deep cuts were necessary, which included school nurses and librarians. “Teachers took a 10 percent salary cut,” he said, underscoring that the cuts were followed by a stabilized school district. 

Post Sept. 11 

In his prepared remarks, Davis pointed to accomplishments in the post Sept. 11 era, having set up both the State Committee on Terrorism and the state Threat Assessment Committee as well as establishing the Anti-Terrorism Information Center in the attorney general’s office. Davis then proposed that the state have a greater ability to monitor suspected terrorists and “allow ‘roving’ wiretaps on suspects.” 

All three candidates questioned the conservative Democratic governor on that issue. 

“I’m a civil libertarian,” Hancock said. “I’m concerned about the direction of the country,” including the idea of using military tribunals to try suspected terrorists. Hancock said the federal government already has all the power needed for wire taps. “(The federal and state agencies) should coordinate,” she said. 

Similarly Ramsey urged care in this area. “We have to be cautious about doing something like this,” he said, calling for the protection of an individual’s rights. “We can’t be intrusive.”  

And Brown said the proposal is a concern to him, though he’d have to look at the specifics. “While the state has to be concerned about public safety, the protection goes both ways.” 

Making schools accountable 

In his speech, Davis put education at the top of his agenda and touted his administration for its educational success, as measured by test scores which have risen three years in a row. 

All three candidates also place education as their No. 1 priority, but they say that testing may not be the best way to judge school improvement. 

One also needs to take children’s engagement and excitement about learning into consideration, Ramsey said, adding that one can judge pupils by looking at “how they behave, whether they are attending school and if they are hungry.” 

Brown, who has been a teacher in West Contra Costa County, said that “standardized tests do not mirror what is taught in schools” and so tell only part of the story. Still, he said, schools need to be accountable. 

Hancock, who worked in the Education Department under Clinton, said that while she was glad Davis had prioritized education, she noted that a month ago he froze $800 million in education funds targeted to urban schools. “To me that’s unacceptable,” she said. 

Test scores are only one measure of school success, she added. Rising test scores may be an indication of improved attendance, decreased school violence and other factors and lower test scores may be an indication of low expectations, she said.  

Davis will reveal the specifics of his budget in a speech on Thursday.