Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner shake hands after their first debate March… (Bret Hartman / For The Times )
From Sacramento — Meg Whitman's Republican rival calls her a liberal. He's not even close.
Political writers often describe her as moderate. That misses the mark too.
Supporting abortion rights -- even state funding of abortions for the poor -- doesn't automatically make her a moderate. Not when she's prepared to whack benefits for welfare moms -- slash almost any program -- to avoid raising taxes.
She opposes same-sex marriage but supports recognizing those unions allowed before Proposition 8 passed. That doesn't make her a moderate either. Not when she insists on eliminating 40,000 state jobs.
Whitman unquestionably is a fiscal conservative, despite the rhetoric of opponent Steve Poizner, who keeps moving right in a failed attempt to outflank her in the fight for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. The Field Poll last week found Whitman leading Poizner by an astounding 62% to 15% among Republican strong conservatives.
Sure, she's a moderate -- even veering liberal -- on so-called social issues. But in today's political climate, that doesn't tilt her into being a centrist. The weighty issues for voters involve economic distress and dysfunctional governments.
Why do labels matter? Because they're shorthand tools that politicians use to sway voters. In a Republican primary, "liberal" is an obscenity. Among Democrats, "conservative" is pejorative. In the November runoff, the winning strategy usually is to morph into a moderate with a minimum of flip-flops.
So where does Whitman stand exactly on some issues? Here's where, based on an interview and a slick, magazine-size booklet the billionaire former EBay chief released last week:
First, the candidate emphasizes, she'll focus on just three priorities: creating jobs, cutting state spending and fixing schools.
"In a turnaround," Whitman says, "you can't solve every single problem. You can't come to Sacramento and boil the ocean. And I will tell you, having been in politics now for as long as I have" -- maybe three years -- "the gravitational pull to solve every problem is enormous."
* Jobs. She'd provide targeted tax cuts such as eliminating the sales tax on manufacturing equipment -- she calls it "the factory tax" -- and the $800 new-business start-up fee. She'd increase the R&D tax credit, accelerate equipment depreciation and offer a tax break for creating green tech jobs.
Most controversial, I suspect, she'd eliminate the capital gains tax. Not just tax the gains at a lower rate than wages, as the feds do, but completely scrub the levy. She asserts this would "spur innovation" and encourage the creation and selling of companies.
But it also would rob the state treasury. Capital gains accounted for nearly 22% -- $10.8 billion -- of the personal income tax in 2007 before the economy tumbled. The income tax supplied roughly 53% of general fund revenue.
And like every other candidate, Whitman would "streamline and reform regulations."
Her first step would be to declare a one-year moratorium on implementing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's pride and joy: landmark legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
* Spending. "Here's the truth," she says. "We have a government we can no longer afford." And "you simply cannot raise taxes." Would she ever consider it?
"If I could look every taxpayer in the eye and say 'We're spending every dollar as efficiently and effectively as possible. We have right-sized the government. We have utilized technology. We have reformed the pensions system. We have reformed the welfare system. We have subcontracted as much work as we can. . . .' "
Even then, Whitman never gets around to saying she'd hike taxes.
To start, she'd begin wiping out those 40,000 state jobs, mainly through attrition, in her first term. But of the 356,000 total jobs, the governor controls only 202,000, and 66,000 are in the prison system. Of the jobs the governor doesn't control, 83% are at universities.
"No, you don't have control over the [university] employees," she notes, "but you do have control over the budget."
Often missed in this debate is the fact, based on U.S. Census Bureau data, that California has the third-smallest per capita state workforce in the nation.
Whitman would ship more prisoners out of state for cheaper incarceration.
She'd reduce the lifetime welfare limit from five to two years.
She would scuttle "wasteful" boards and commissions -- and save relative peanuts.
"There is no silver bullet here. There isn't," she says. "It's going to be $500 million here, $1 billion there, $100 million here. . . . "
She would invest in technology to, among other things, root out fraud in Medi-Cal and Medicare.
But if she were governor now, I ask, how would she plug the current $20-billion budget deficit?
"We wouldn't be in this position if I'd been governor," replies the candidate with no government experience at any level. "It takes time to re-engineer the cost structure of the state. In the next three months, I don't know what they're going to do. . . . You wind up using a meat ax as opposed to a scalpel."
* Schools. Briefly:
There's already enough money, she says, echoing GOP dogma, but more needs to get into the classroom. Only about 60% does. That means canning not only administrators, but also nurses and counselors.
She'd provide merit pay for the best teachers. And grade each school -- A to F -- based on testing, so parents could jump on them. There'd be unlimited numbers of charter schools.
But she'd ban illegal immigrants from community colleges and state universities.
"At some point," she says, "you have to draw a line in the sand about what taxpayers will pay for."
Whitman's definitely not a liberal -- and not much of a moderate either.