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– Be part of the solution, not just a part of the system.
GILROY – Be part of the solution, not just a part of the system.

If elected to represent the 28th District in the state Assembly, Jane Howard says she’ll do just that: employ a common-sense approach to help right a state government ship she thinks is drifting dangerously off course toward the proverbial rocks of financial crisis and ruin.

“I’m concerned about the reckless overspending by state government and how our fiscal crisis specifically impacts education and public safety,” Howard said of her decision to challenge one-term incumbent Democrat Simon Salinas of Salinas. “I’m a business owner who understands the problems we face when we’re burdened by regulations and costly mandates from Sacramento that directly affect our ability to make a living.”

Howard, 49, is a well-known and respected political and civic leader in Gilroy, now the northernmost community in a sprawling district that stretches south past King City and includes large inland portions of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties and all of San Benito County.

Howard, who grew up on a poultry farm in rural southern Indiana before coming to California, has put down deep roots in business, local government and civic involvement in the Garlic Capital since she moved here in 1980, as well as an inner-party presence in regional and state Republican politics.

She and her husband Al co-owned Howard Tire, a chain of seven retail tire stores stretching from San Francisco to Salinas, before selling it to Wheel Works Inc. in 1995. They now own the EZ Clean Car Wash.

Howard’s direct elected experience came while serving as a member of the Gilroy Unified School District Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2000, including a stint as board president in 1999. She also led or served on a number of marquis civic boards here, including the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce, South Valley Hospital board of directors, Gilroy Garlic Festival and the city’s Rotary Club. She earned “Woman of the Year” honors from the Chamber in 1999.

As a member of the county’s Republican Central Committee, Howard has been a delegate to the state party since 1997 and was also a delegate to the national convention in 2000. She’s become acquainted with many local Republican figureheads and worked on their campaigns, including those of Salinas’ three-term predecessor Peter Frusetta, the so-called “Cowboy in the Capitol.”

In fact, when talking about the issues, Howard directs much of her ire not specifically at Salinas, but at the status-quo of the Democratically-controlled government in general. Her campaign literature is studded with references to Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and “the current majority” in the state Legislature.

Like her opponent, Howard considers education and public safety two of her three main priorities, but says both are inextricably linked to a third priority that’s listed in her profile on the League of Women Voters’ SmartVoter Web site: the state budget.

State budget out of control

State government grew a “whopping” 37 percent during the Davis years, Howard said, while inflation rose only 12 percent and the state’s population grew 5 percent. Meanwhile, the state is saddled with billions of dollars in overpriced, long-term energy bonds and faces looming deficit problems in the future.

“The complete disregard for fiscal accountability is unacceptable,” she said.

While there are no easy solutions, Howard stresses some common themes to right the ship: set priorities – protecting key interests such as education and public safety along the way – then reduce spending. Raising taxes is not the answer, she said, nor is expanding the role of bonds to cover short-term budget crises, which she calls “dangerous” and “appalling.”

“The governor and the majority in the Legislature see the crisis as a revenue shortfall, not a spending problem,” she said.

To help wrestle control of spending, Howard supports a number of specific actions, such as establishing a new state spending limit to hold future budget adjustments against. In years when revenues exceed the limit, the extra funds should go into a reserve account up to 5 percent, she said.

Meanwhile, she supports zero-based budgeting and Senate Bill 1428, which she said would establish a commission to identify and close unnecessary and wasteful bureaucracies. She also supports ACA 22, a constitutional amendment tying the pace of state spending growth to that of personal income.

“It prohibits officials running the government from spending money we don’t have,” she said.

Slashing bureaucracy and returning control to locally elected school boards are main tenets of Howard’s proposal to “rethink” education policy. Accountability is important but is not a function of bureaucracy or a one-size-fits-all system for every school, she said.

“We need community freedom in education policy to eliminate bureaucratic waste and declining student achievement,” she said. “Let the state set a standard – such as every child should be able to read by the end of the third grade – then test students to see if the goal has been reached.

“How it is done is the job of the local community.”

When the state takes aim at overspending, it should not come at the expense of public safety, she said – especially with the specter of increased international terrorism that’s come with the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rather, security efforts should allow for significant increases in emergency preparedness and terrorism response through staffing, training and technology grants that help ensure crucial data moves freely between agencies.

Public safety a priority

Meanwhile, support for non-terror crime prevention efforts such as juvenile crime prevention, gang suppression and anti-drug programs must continue, Howard said.

“Law enforcement must not only battle crime, but meet the new challenges of terrorism,” she said.

While neither candidate has listed transportation among this year’s top three priorities, no one denies it’s a major issue in South County and San Benito County, which feature local housing growth and major transportation links serving Silicon Valley jobs.

While Howard is waiting for the results of studies to determine what should happen with the San Benito County Farm Bureau’s so-called “3-in-1” proposal for a new regional highway, she plans to work closely with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority to implement its existing 20-year plan of highway and road improvements.

Howard said her good working relationships with District 1 County Supervisor Don Gage and Gilroy Mayor Tom Springer – both VTA directors – will be a key asset.

“I will be able to communicate and work with them and the VTA board to secure support and funding for projects that are near and dear to South County,” she said.

Besides helping to elect Gage, Springer and another former Gilroy mayor, Mike Gilroy, Howard has also worked on campaigns for state Sen. Bruce McPherson. All have, in turn, endorsed her in the contest with Salinas.

But Howard still will have her work cut out for her in the sprawling 28th District, where more than half the 151,000 registered voters are Democrats who live in Monterey County, Salinas’ home turf and old political stomping grounds. Thirty percent of district voters are registered Republicans.

Howard admits she’s spent a “tremendous” amount of time in Monterey County as she’s worked to fulfill a centerpiece effort of her grassroots campaign against Salinas: a commitment to spend at least 100 hours walking door-to-door in neighborhoods to meet voters and hear their concerns.

In fact, the unusually quiet race has boasted nary a press release – at least locally – when compared to contests such as last fall’s oft-bitter supervisorial battle between Gage and Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy.

Howard said it’s significant that more than 18 percent of voters have declined to state a party affiliation in the 28th District, which she notes has a history of electing representatives from both parties – such as Frusetta, who was forced out by term limits after three terms.

“I’ve found meeting with voters throughout the district that ‘issues’ drive their vote, and knowing (that) their representative is listening to their concerns,” she said.

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