Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Bomber subsidy bill puts liberal legislators on the spot

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

If you are a liberal Democrat, two of your likely ideological tenets are ending tax breaks and subsidies for corporations and reducing spending on nuclear arms to free up money for health, social and educational services.

Assembly Bill 2389 violated both. The hastily written bill, sought by Gov. Jerry Brown, would grant one defense company, Lockheed Martin, a special tax break estimated at $420 million to help it and Boeing win a Pentagon contract for a new strategic bomber that would make it easier to rain thermonuclear destruction on a future military foe.

The loophole would be financed from the state treasury and thus divert funds otherwise available for the social and educational spending that liberals cherish. It’s predicated on the assumption that several thousand high-paying manufacturing jobs would be created.

One of the legislation’s unspoken aims is helping first-term Democratic Assemblyman Steve Fox, the bill’s nominal author, win a tough re-election battle this year. His Antelope Valley district is a center of aircraft production, which has declined markedly with post-Cold War cutbacks in Pentagon weapons spending.

When the bill first surfaced in the Assembly, the angst among liberal legislators was palpable. They were being asked to embrace legislation that violates two of their oft-chanted political principles, and five Democratic Assembly members refused to vote for it.

The same dilemma – conflict between principle and practical politics – was even more obvious when the bill moved to the Senate.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg insisted that the bill be modified to reduce – in theory at least – its bite on the state treasury by taking some of the money out of a special fund given to Brown to make deals on job-generating business investments.

Even so, several liberal senators spoke against it on the Senate floor.

Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, for instance, was highly critical of spending state funds on “the next generation of nuclear weapons systems” while not meeting health care and social services needs.

“That’s where the money should be going,” Monning told his colleagues. He and others also worried aloud that enacting the Lockheed Martin bill would open the door to demands from other companies for tax breaks with threats of high-wage jobs going to other states.

Once again, Steinberg straddled the line, agreeing with liberal critics about priorities, decrying the corporate practice of pitting states against one another but concluding, “I don’t think we can turn our back on this.”

When the final vote was taken, eight liberals either voted against it or refused to vote – the latter being tantamount to a “no.”

It probably won’t be the last time liberals face the dilemma, because the same subsidy may be sought for another bomber bidder, Northrop Grumman.