Governor Jerry Brown has demonstrated that experience and pragmatism can go a long way towards easing California back from the fiscal cliff. Now, there is an opportunity for the Governor to enlist another “old pro” in finishing the job of getting California’s fiscal house in order. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is back in California and it is hard to imagine anyone better suited to tackling the job of crafting a long term financial and economic road map for the Golden State.
The Governor has accomplished a lot in reducing the “wall of debt” and balancing the State’s Budget, using something other than smoke and mirrors, but the need for long term stabilization is still there. The passage of Proposition 30 and a recovering economy have provided much needed breathing room, but the measure’s tax increases are temporary and lots of unmet needs in education, infrastructure and health care remain. Our State tax system is over-dependent on income and sales taxes and too susceptible to economic bursts and contractions. Pension obligations hang like a sword over State and local governments.
With a modest amount of black ink flowing and the economy picking up steam, this is a great time to look ahead and plan for life after the temporary taxes expire and the economy cools. When it comes to providing for the basic underpinnings of our economy and quality of life, Californians don’t have to surrender to the inevitability of a boom and bust cycle for either the public or private sector.
Time is now on the Governor’s side. His path to re-election would appear to be uncluttered . Barring something unforeseen, he should be able to cruise to a second term, while continuing to provide the adult supervision that, had been so clearly lacking in Sacramento. From a policy perspective, though, Brown’s style is not to multi-task, but rather to take one issue at a time. Whether it is the Bullet Train, water, enterprise zones or priorities for school funding, the Governor tends to focus on one issue at a time. Putting together a master plan for anything is just not Jerry Brown’s style. That’s where Leon Panetta could come in.
A working group headed by Secretary Panetta could spend the next two years looking at the economic and demographic realities and trends, consulting with a broad array of stakeholders and developing a blueprint for the future that answers the critical questions that will define our state’s future: How do we reform our tax and revenue system to foster economic growth and equitably treat all taxpayers? How do we assure full funding for our K-12 and higher education systems, while pressing for reforms and accountability to make sure these institutions deliver better results? How do we pay for the transportation, water and energy infrastructure that will be needed to support our population and quality of life? How does California deal with the financial obligations that have been created by the salary and pension demands of public employee unions? How will the health care scenario play out? What do demographic changes mean for California? How do we nurture the creative and innovative sectors that spearhead the state’s economic growth?
There have been plenty of blue ribbon panels and grand plans that have gone nowhere in the past, but the political planets may be better aligned now than they have been for a long time. Jerry Brown has calmed the fiscal waters. For better or worse, partisan gridlock has been overcome by the virtual demise of the GOP–at least for the present. The economy is on the upswing with real estate values and job creation improving. Newly revised term limits may also foster a longer term outlook among legislators. If a group of pragmatic policy thinkers, under Leon Panetta’s leadership, can come up with a menu of fair and sensible strategies by the end of 2014, a newly re-elected Governor Brown and–perhaps–a more forward-thinking Legislature could present voters with a real game plan for the future.
That may be a pipe dream, but it’s worth thinking about.