Lazy is in the Eye of the Beholder

Joe Rodota
CEO of Forward Observer, a public affairs firm with offices in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., a former communications manager in the Reagan White House, and the author of The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address

Last week, at the annual Milken Institute State of the State conference, California Lieutenant Governor had this to say about California’s job climate:

“We cleaned everyone’s clock, we left everyone in the dust between 1950 and 1980 in California. The last 30 years, we put up our legs, we sat back. We’re like the aging high school football player who talks about the good ol’ days.”

Newsom played shortstop in college. When it comes to California’s economic history, he’s out in left field.

His thesis: Sacramento has been asleep at the switch since the middle of the second term of Jerry Brown’s first governorship.

This is nonsense.

I was located in an office adjacent to Governor Pete Wilson’s for much of his first and second terms and he was not the type to put up his legs or sit back.

Wilson is a legend for having tamed a serious budget deficit in his first two years, delivering a balanced budget within 36 months of taking office and leaving his successor a $16 billion surplus.  But he was just as aggressive in restoring California’s economy, which was in the early months of a severe slump just as he took the oath office in January 1990.

As Governor from 1990 to 1998, Wilson engaged in an all-out effort to assist the California Legislature in confronting the facts, and acting to address them.

Wilson appointed former Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth to chair a bipartisan panel of business leaders, who concluded in 1991 that California was a “well-honed job killing machine.”  Democrats in the Legislature, under the leadership of Willie Brown and David Roberti, responded with their own jobs summits.   The result was a bipartisan consensus that urgent action was needed.

Wilson followed through, implementing reform after reform.  Follow-through, in fact, is a theme that defines the Wilson era.

He drove relentlessly toward a workers compensation insurance system that was fair to injured workers, affordable to employers, and infuriating to parasitic attorneys.  Workers compensation insurance rates fell 40 percent over his term in office.

He successfully pressed the Legislature for pro-business tax cuts as part of several key budgets.

Wilson led missions overseas to spark investments in California and encourage tourists to visit California from Japan, Europe and around the globe.

He launched a series of regulatory reviews that resulted in the elimination or modification of unnecessary and out-of-date regulations that served no useful purpose, or whose costs substantially outweighed the gains.

He called CEOs day after day, pressuring them to choose a California location over one in Arizona or Nevada, and never took “no” for an answer.

He streamlined state permitting – setting up “one stop shops” around the state so entrepreneurs could be up and running quickly.

He created a Trade and Commerce Agency and installed there some of the most tenacious and energetic public servants ever to set foot in Sacramento.  The Agency ran “red teams” to work out any and all issues that stood in the way of expanding a business in California. (Governor Davis later packed the place with do-nothings, and eventually the Legislature closed the agency completely.)

Most importantly, what Pete Wilson provided Sacramento was a compass.  He set a direction, and pursued it for eight years.  You knew that when Pete Wilson waded into an issue, he was going to make changes that would improve the California business climate and bring jobs here.

The office of Lieutenant Governor has relatively few responsibilities, which affords its occupant a rare luxury: free time.  Gavin Newsom should fill a few of his spare hours each day with a careful and objective study of the Wilson era, as well as the concrete steps governors in other states – from both parties – have taken to get their economies moving again.

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