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Wanted: profiles in courage

Candidates for governor in next year's election have taken pains to dodge the real implications of the May 19 special election.


I don't know if this is an old adage or a new one I've coined based on years of depressing observations, but it seems that California's political leaders mostly operate according to the following principle: The best way to avoid taking action on something is to call for "action."

The aftermath of the May 19 special election affords us an especially good look at this principle in, well, action.

With a couple of exceptions, the declared and putative candidates for governor in next year's race have taken pains to dodge its real implications, beyond seconding Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's view that the public must be frustrated with Sacramento and observing that something must be done.

Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (GOP) called for an "immediate restructuring of state government," which is pretty safe since everyone knows that on the Gonna Happen scale, that's a "not." Ex-EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman (GOP) endorsed a mass layoff of 30,000 state employees, which may or may not be consistent with her support for "making government more efficient and effective." You make the call. Anyway, that's about as explicit as she got.

On the Democratic side, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown has been largely silent. I asked his spokesman if Brown thought a constitutional convention should convene to reconsider the two-thirds legislative supermajority needed to pass a budget, term limits and ballot-box budgeting. He said Brown thinks it's "premature to comment on a proposal whose basic elements have yet to be defined."

As prepared statements go, this one is just nowheresville.

In terms of the state's fiscal condition and its cracked governance model, "we're about where we were in 1996-97" (that is, in the wake of several years of recession), Fred Silva, senior fiscal policy analyst for the good-government group California Forward, told me last week.

Silva, who served on the constitutional revision commission of that era, adds: "We need the same discussion we had then, but we need to hurry up." He notes that the legislature never took up the commission's recommendations because by the time they came up, the budget was flush with dot-com capital gains. We're now paying for that dereliction.

Which brings us to the Democratic mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, and ex-Republican congressman and state Finance Director Tom Campbell.

Newsom has come out in favor of a constitutional convention. More interestingly, he has explicitly endorsed repeal of the "antiquated two-thirds majority vote requirement" for passing a budget, one important factor in the exercise in Sisyphean futility known as the annual budget cycle. He says his city budget, which will be released today, will give voters a clue to how he can balance a budget without new taxes and few layoffs.

Campbell, a policy wonk of the first water, is the only candidate who was ready even before election day with a full portfolio of prescriptions on budget policy and process. These encompassed $12.65 billion in program cuts. Some are draconian, but some reflect an admirable impulse to nix proposals that will produce only illusory savings, undermine communal health and welfare, stick city or county taxpayers with the state's bills or mortgage the state's competitive future.

Accordingly, he rejected Schwarzenegger's proposals to deny many health services to legal immigrants, cut $112 million from community colleges and eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars for drug and HIV programs and child welfare and poison control services.

He rejected the common fantasy that the state could depend on ferreting out $63 million in fraud in Medi-Cal and other services. Thumbs down, too, on "borrowing" $2 billion from counties and cities.

As for the state payroll, Campbell pegged the savings needed from the workforce at $2.8 billion (before the election) and proposed to get it by negotiating wage concessions with the employee unions.

"Negotiating" is key here because it's crucial to make employees and their unions partners in what has to be a multi-faceted spreading of pain statewide. That's preferable to slandering them all as greedy slobs, which is the default theme at budget-cutting time.

Still, Campbell isn't shy about noting that the state's leverage in such negotiations is the governor's authority to furlough state workers instead.

The other side of the coin is Campbell's proposal for a one-year, 32-cent tax on every gallon of gasoline, which he says will produce revenue of $5.8 billion.

"We're looking for profiles in courage here," he told me last week. "The Democrats are going to have to be willing to talk to the unions, and the Republicans are going to have to see that some part of this will have to be the gas tax."

As for the deep structural cracks in the state's governance process, he acknowledges that the two-thirds rule, term limits, the public's love for passing programs at the ballot box, and Proposition 13 are "all relevant to our predicament."

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