California and Brown Riding a Hot Streak

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

If Jerry Brown were a gambling man, this would be a fine time to hit the dice tables in Reno. Or at least take a flier on the state lottery.

The governor and California are riding a hot streak right now and even the state’s long-disgruntled residents are going with the flow.

A new Public Policy Institute of California poll released this week found better than two-thirds of California residents like Brown’s budget plan, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

The 49 percent of adults who are convinced that economic times will be better in 2013 is the highest percentage since January 2007. And the 51 percent of residents who believe the state is headed in the right direction is the first time since 2007 a majority has been pleased with the state’s direction.

Heck, 57 percent of California residents are convinced that Brown and the Legislature will be able to work together and get a lot accomplished in the coming year and that’s probably a more optimistic number than you’d get if you polled Brown and the Legislature.

The state’s economic news has only gotten better since the PPIC completed its polling.

California’s unemployment rate is holding steady at 9.8 percent, same as in December. And that was the first time in nearly four years that it had fallen out of double digits.

After months of disappointing tax numbers, the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that January tax revenue would be $5 billion higher than Brown estimated in the budget he put out only a couple weeks ago.

And Standard & Poor this week raised the rating on California’s bonds, noting that they view the state’s “alignment between revenues and expenditures as much improved and largely a result of policymakers’ heightened emphasis on fixing the state’s fiscal structure in the past two budgets.”

The future could even be better, the rating agency said, noting, “We also see potential for further upward rating movement, pending economic and revenue performance.”

The state’s increasingly rosy fiscal picture has even made a believer out of state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who’s been grumpy over California’s fiscal picture since he took that job in 2007.

“When it comes to the State Budget, I’ve called myself the town grouch,” Lockyer said in a statement Thursday. “I’m in a much better mood these days.”

Brown, Lockyer and other state political and economic leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, keep warning that budgets are only estimates and that there is plenty of potential for a harsh dose of reality to strike California’s financial picture.

But confidence can be contagious. If Californians, employers and employees both, start believing the worst is past, they might start thinking about taking down the economic storm windows of the past few years and preparing for a sunnier future.

A cautious move by California residents from their current defensive posture could provide a boost for the state’s economy, which could lead to even more financial improvement down the road.

Brown’s job is to nurture the state’s improving economy and ensure that it doesn’t get stomped out by either Democratic legislators anxious to declare that “happy days are here again so let’s spend some money” or by Republicans convinced that times are so good that there’s no need to even think about ever again increasing a tax or fee.

But since all successful politicians know how to read polls, there are a number of points in the PPIC survey that could make the governor’s job easier.

First, while 50 percent of California’s likely voters approve of the way Brown is handling his job, that number falls to 31 percent for the Legislature.

In addition, 71 percent of those likely voters remain convinced that the state budget is still a big problem for California.

A 55 percent majority of Californians also prefer Brown’s plan to pay down state debt and create a $1 billion reserve fund to suggestions, largely by his fellow Democrats, that more money go toward restoring state funding on social services.

While the governor wouldn’t be rude enough to mention these poll numbers when he “breaks bread with the legislators” in a series of dinners he’s planning at the Governor’s Mansion, you can bet he’ll find a way to remind lawmakers that California’s belt-tightening time isn’t over.

Maybe a cash bar?

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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