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Calif. Officials Face Off Over Goals 2000 Funds

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A showdown looms between California's top two elected officials over $42 million in federal funds now sitting in limbo in San Francisco's Federal Reserve Bank.

Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, pledged last month to take the necessary steps to deposit the money in the state treasury sometime in the next few weeks while Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, is on the road.

California law transfers full executive power to the lieutenant governor any time the governor is out of state, and Mr. Davis boldly promised he would brandish the temporary powers to grab the federal school-improvement money that Mr. Wilson has yet to accept.

Mr. Davis, in a hand-delivered letter, told the governor in October that he felt "dismay and bewilderment" over how Mr. Wilson had so far declined the second-year funding under the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, President Clinton's major initiative in K-12 education.

Gov. Wilson accepted a planning grant under the program last year. Although he has not formally refused the $42 million available this year, he has repeatedly said he does not intend to accept the money. It comes with too many federal strings attached, the governor argues.

So, if the governor won't take the aid, Mr. Davis said last month, he will.

Observers had anticipated the maneuver might begin shortly before Thanksgiving, while Gov. Wilson was in New Hampshire for several days attending a meeting of Republican governors.

Aides to Mr. Davis, however, said they must grease the tracks before accepting the money. Because several steps are involved--notifying state budget officials to expect the deposit, convening a budget panel to accept the funds, then making the actual transfer--they are making sure they can pull off the switch before they try.

"This is not as easy as a veto," said Stevan Allen, a spokesman for Mr. Davis. "It is going to take more than a penstroke."

Hot Potato

There are concerns that Mr. Wilson may phone in and confuse the proceedings or that the process might take so long the governor would be back in the state before it was completed. Mr. Davis plans to move with stealth once he initiates the transfer, hoping that the money will be deposited before many even know what happened.

While the first-term lieutenant governor has yet to make headlines by invoking the interim powers, longtime California residents have seen such one-upmanship before.

In the 1970s, then-Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, a Republican, made the most of his executive authority while Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown was out of the state. Mr. Curb vetoed bills, called special hearings, and even appointed judges. Courts ruled that Mr. Brown could withdraw any appointments that were not confirmed before he made it back to the state, but otherwise most of Mr. Curb's actions stuck.

Political observers began watching Mr. Davis for signs of such activism earlier this year when Gov. Wilson pursued a short-lived campaign for the Republican nomination for president. But the lieutenant governor was nonconfrontational, apparently not wanting to provoke Mr. Wilson to abandon his campaign which, if successful, would have promoted Mr. Davis to the governor's office full time.

But now, as in many states, the Goals 2000 program has become a political hot potato, and it lies at the heart of Mr. Davis' gambit.

California last year accepted $10.5 million in first-year Goals 2000 money. Of that, $6.2 million has gone to 227 California school districts this year to write local school-improvement plans. Officials at the U.S. Education Department have repeatedly offered Mr. Wilson this year's money and urged him to take it.

But Gov. Wilson has said he is reluctant to take money for anything other than planning because he fears--as do officials in other states that have declined the money--that this year's funds may provide a crack in the door for federal officials to become absentee managers of some of the state's education programs.

Under the law, states that wish to receive second-year grants must submit improvement plans to Washington for approval and begin implementing them that year.

"The governor has made a habit of complaining that Washington wants the state to make things work without coming through with the money," Mr. Allen, the lieutenant governor's spokesman, said. "It's a little ironic that now there's $42 million sitting out there waiting to be taken, and he is turning his back."

"We ought to have that money, and we've already said what's going to happen," Mr. Allen added. "We are going to get it."

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