Never bashful, Gov. Gray Davis proclaims that his freshman year, 1999, "was a great year. I had no disappointments." There's no question that Davis is a smart politician who was underestimated by his critics. He entered office after a near-landslide election victory in 1998 and promoted a New Democrat agenda that focused on improving the public schools while otherwise appealing to the broad middle of the political spectrum. Indeed, it was a good year for him.
But Davis also should give some credit to luck. He inherited a multibillion-dollar budget surplus and a Legislature controlled by fellow Democrats. He enters his second year with another budget bonanza produced by a vigorous economy. Davis will bask as the host governor for the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and--barring some stunning reversal--his party is expected to continue its dominance in the state's 2000 election. Davis has already raised an unprecedented $10 million in preparation for a 2002 reelection campaign.
Contrast that with the first term of his Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson. Taking office just as a massive recession struck California, Wilson had to deal with budget deficits of up to $14 billion and then faced a dizzying series of natural disasters and the Los Angeles riots. Wilson spent most of his second term helping California recover.
Davis was asked last week what he planned in the new year. More of the same, he said--more money and attention to education, holding a tough line on crime, parceling out some of the surplus to finance public works, more action on health care and some initiatives to help the mentally ill. These are sound basics, if not particularly visionary.
Davis, a keen reader of opinion polls, is not inclined to take bold leaps into unknown political territory, but we would urge him to venture more aggressively into two broad areas. One is development of a long-range infrastructure program. California depends on freeways, a water project, university campuses and other facilities planned in the 1950s and 1960s. The governor's infrastructure commission needs to explore new and creative ways to both modernize what we already have and build anew to accommodate the population gains of the next two decades. Its goals should include sensible planning of the residential and business development that will follow better infrastructure.
The second is untangling the maze of state and local government finance, which has gotten steadily worse since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. The state should give local government its own revenue sources and authority to allocate the money on the basis of local needs. The problem has been studied to death, but little is likely to happen until the governor enthusiastically presses for a solution.
In the early 1990s, Wilson faced adversity as a stern test of his leadership. Graced with good times, Davis can demonstrate his own leadership by helping California cope with issues long delayed.