The Gubernatorial Candidates Are Missing Three Big Agendas

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

What are you going to do if it all goes off the rails?

Politicians are advised not to advise hypotheticals, but the candidates for governor need to be pressed to explain how they would address some likely negative turns in California in the years ahead.

The candidates are rolling out policy agendas, with Gavin Newsom very much ahead, as he has been in the polls. But none of the candidates have much of an agenda when it comes to the three big questions.

  1. What’s your recession agenda?

The slow but steady economic expansion since the Great Recession has gone on for almost a decade. That’s a longtime, and the country is overdue for another recession.

But it’s not clear what the candidates would do in a recession, which would produce – via California’s messy and volatile budget and tax systems – an outsized reduction in state revenues. Candidates need to be pressed for a recession agenda, particularly since the odds are very high that the next governor will confront a recession.

This needs to go beyond what they might cut – and whether they’ll simply slam higher education and poor people, which are the programs easiest to cut under California’s constitution—to questions of opportunity.

The state failed to take advantage of the last recession, when it could have borrowed cheaply and invested much more broadly in its infrastructure needs, and in building more housing. Instead, Gov. Schwarzenegger – and even more so Gov. Brown – pinched pennies. That was an enormous missed opportunity, given the much higher costs of building now.

It begs the question of whether prospective governors have thought about how to be counter-cyclical, and use the advantages of bad times – things get cheaper—to invest.

  1. What’s your tax reform agenda?

It’s unclear what if anything the federal government might produce in tax changes this month. But if a bill makes it through that affects California even half as much as the current legislative proposals, the next governor should tackle taxes. (The current governor should have remade the tax system, of course, but Brown never did).

All of the candidates have talked up tax reform, and Newsom as lieutenant governor has advanced specific ideas (which were never followed up on by Brown). But they need to be much more specific about taxes and proposals. This is uncomfortable ground for Democrats, since tax reform might mean lowering some taxes, including taxes paid by rich folks.

But the goal is achievable: the state needs a system that produces more revenue, more reliably, but with less negative economic impacts. The current system – which isn’t much of a system – offers all kinds of opportunities for improvement. Many efforts have produced strong ideas. What’s been missing is leadership.

Can any of the candidates provide it?

  1. And what is your 2021 agenda?

The leading Democratic candidates all pledge to fight Trump—though they could be more specific about what they’d actually do once in office.

But even that’s not enough. The 2020 election looks like it could be a national disaster, between voter suppression in Republican states, more attempts by foreign governments to interfere, and the utter breakdown of trust in society. Both parties could split in two, sowing political chaos and perhaps pushing the election into the House of Representatives. And it’s quite possible that the election results won’t be accepted by the losing side (especially if the losing side is Trump). Would the military have to expel him from the White House?

Perhaps it sounds outlandish, but outlandish is the norm in America now. So candidates should be pressed to answer the following questions: What’s your 2021 plan? How would you deal with a nasty, disputed election and with a second term of Trump, a candidate who has tried to transform his anger at California’s lack of support into retaliatory policy? How long can California resist? And is there any leverage for California in movements to seek more autonomy for the state from the federal government or even independence?

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