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Quit playing games with Hill AFB

President Clinton and Congress need to accept reality and assure Hill Air Force Base it will remain open indefinitely.

That's likely to happen despite the political games being played in Washington.The base should not only be saved but should gain jobs thanks to a compromise reached by House and Senate negotiators on a defense authorization bill.

But change, particularly when it involves states with large electoral counts, doesn't come easily in Washington. Not surprisingly senators from Texas and California, who worry the deal would cost jobs at bases in their states, are threatening a filibuster. Utah lawmakers are confident the votes are there to prevent it. Clinton, however, is considering a veto.

If the petty politicking is kept out of the equation then the end to a battle that began two years ago may be over. Clinton has tried to avoid the ordered closure of two large depot air bases in Texas (Kelly) and California (McClellan) by first privatizing their work and then by a combination of public-private competition for the two bases' workloads.

The House-Senate compromise includes the open competition provision, but Utah lawmakers aren't worried. They're confident that Hill has shown itself to be the most efficient of the five current air logistics centers and that open competition will mean more, not fewer jobs for the Utah base.

The compromise also allows more potential privatization. Current law requires depot bases to be given at least 60 percent of all repair-and-maintenance work, but the compromise allows lowering that to 50 percent if private companies can outbid them.

That Hill has to compete at all is due to the failure of Clinton to put national interests ahead of his own. Because the bases in California and Texas are in voter-rich states, he has been sidestepping the order to close them while at the same time calling for base closures elsewhere to save money.

The General Accounting Office asserts that closing the Texas and California bases outright and transferring their work to Hill and other bases would save $468 million a year.

Clinton and Congress need to focus more on that aspect of base closures and less on what is the most politically expedient thing to do.