The Magazine

The Once and Future Governor

Jerry Brown’s third chance to get it right.

Dec 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 15 • By BILL WHALEN
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In the meantime, something far less speculative is California’s horrific fiscal outlook. In addition to the $28 billion budget shortfall that must be solved by next summer, lawmakers face an ongoing $20 billion annual spending-revenue imbalance for the foreseeable future. California’s credit card is maxed out, with $15 billion already owed in “recovery” bonds for budgetary borrowing. Of course, that’s peanuts compared with California’s pension obligations, which may run as high as $500 billion. America’s nation-sized state holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s eighth largest economy with one of the worst credit ratings in the country. Not that a recovery is expected any time soon: California employment won’t return to its prerecession level for another eight years at least.

Where this is taking Brown and his fellow Democrats seemed obvious after his Memorial Auditorium dog and pony show on December 8 (and a similar event in Los Angeles about a week later): a tax increase, put before voters in a special election at some point in 2011. Perhaps Brown was simply preaching to a choir of Democrats who don’t believe California has a spending problem, but the liberal spin was hard to miss: The Golden State ranks next to last in students per teacher and is fourth worst in number of state employees per resident. Meanwhile, there was precious little talk of privatization, outsourcing to local government, or trimming government waste. Brown also repeatedly referred to California as “the world’s eighth richest political jurisdiction,” perhaps a warning sign that he’ll soon ask the citizenry to surrender more of that wealth.

But before he does so, maybe Brown should talk to the outgoing governor. In special elections in 2005 and 2009, Schwarzenegger campaigned for 10 ballot measures. All 4 of Arnold’s measures in the first special election went down to defeat, buried in an avalanche of campaign spending by liberal special interests. In 2009, Arnold tried to sell California on 6 budget-related initiatives. All but one—prohibiting pay increases for lawmakers during deficit years—lost handily; only one of the 5 losing initiatives received more than 38 percent support.

The antigovernment trend continued this past November. Californians approved Proposition 26, requiring a two-thirds majority for fee increases by the legislature—a virtual impossibility. Two other initiatives marketed under the guise of revenue enhancement—Prop 19, legalizing recreational marijuana use, and Prop 24, undoing business tax incentives—were soundly rejected. Voters even said no to an $18 automobile fee to finance state park operations.

Schwarzenegger understood the folly of his ways, telling reporters at one point: “If I would do another Terminator movie, I would have Terminator travel back in time and tell Arnold not to have a special election.” Time will tell if California’s next governor—also a time traveler, from out of the Golden State’s past—discovers the same remorse.

Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow, analyzes California and national politics.

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