The California Beat: How We Got Here and What’s At Stake

The California Beat:  How We Got Here and What’s at Stake

After some interesting remarks from a reader last week, I thought it would be a good idea to refresh everyone as to how California reached the state it is currently in, and what’s at stake in the elections this fall.  The roots of California’s ills are manifold and go back several years.  I can also guarantee that they involve much more than illegal immigrants and big, bad liberals like yours truly.

California’s most pressing problem is that it is broke.  At last count, the state’s deficit was over $20 billion, with Governor Schwarzenegger and his allies advocating for drastic cuts in public spending, including furloughs for state employees, staggered closings each week for universities, cuts to assistance for the poor, and the release of felons that the prison system can no longer afford to incarcerate.  California’s public school system, which was once considered among the best in America, is now consistently rated among the worst.

How did the Golden State get here?  And how can fiscal sanity be fairly restored?  One of the first steps toward this situation was the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which rolled back and limited California’s property taxes.  I believe that in his first stint as governor, Jerry Brown went too far in his frugal proclivities by sitting on the state’s surplus for so long.  Naturally, people want to feel as though they are getting their money’s worth when they pay their taxes.  Limiting the state’s tax base in this fashion, however, along with requiring a 2/3 majority to pass a budget and bring in new taxes, might have been a case of the cure being worse than the disease.  The many California jobs that have been outsourced overseas – nearly 30,000 of them courtesy of Carly Fiorina when she was CEO of Hewlett & Packard – make it harder still to raise taxes from wages and salaries.

Many conservatives, however, will claim that overpaid public servants and illegal immigration are the bigger problems.  Ideally, government expenses should not outpace government revenues, but that’s a bit harder to pull off in California than in many other places.  I heartily sympathize with those who grumble when public servants complain about the potential loss of benefits that many others can only dream of, but is the spectacle of people having living wages, pensions, adequate health insurance, and sick days really so offensive?  Maybe the real problem is how many people don’t have these good things – even the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act won’t be fully implemented until 2014.  Is the notion that those who work full-time should be able to adequately support themselves and their families really so strange?

Speaking of work, and another hot-button issue, President Obama laid out proposals last week for comprehensive immigration reform (which he has supported since he was a senator) – something else that California is clamouring for.  His speech touched on America’s history as a country built by immigrants, how every wave of newcomers has had to battle prejudice, and how flawed the present immigration system is.  The president voiced his support for giving illegal immigrants the chance to pay fines, learn English, and then get in the back of the line to become citizens, as well as stronger border patrol and enforcement, which his administration has already strengthened considerably.  Obama also supports fines for employers who employ undocumented immigrants.  Mass deportations are expensive, impractical, and unfair, especially to the children of those who broke the law; Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law is liable to lead to unjust racial profiling; the economy would suffer enormously if the 12 million or so people who are in the country illegally were gone.

This leads me to the latest news in the governor’s race.  After an extremely lacklustre start, Jerry Brown has now received the endorsement of many prominent Latinos, such as Representative Xavier Becerra of California’s 31st Congressional District, Assembly Member Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, and L.A. Country Sheriff Lee Baca.  All cited Brown’s experience of marching with Cesar Chavez in support of farm workers’ rights, appointing Latinos to prominent positions during his first stint as governor, and his dogged effort as Attorney General to prosecute companies who exploit workers.  They also decried Meg Whitman’s positions on immigration, which can be found on her website,

Brown still has much more work to do in getting his message out to the voters, but this is a worthy start.  I speak as a member of the whole generation who have been born, and grown to adulthood, since Brown left the governor’s office.  We don’t have personal memories of his time as governor to help us know what he stands for; he needs to release a clear platform of things he will do as governor, not just the things he has done as Attorney General.  Whitman is spending millions of dollars of her own money and is on the airwaves, on TV, and in the news right now; Brown is much less so.  While Whitman should absolutely take Brown up on his invitation to have town hall meetings before their official debates in October, Brown needs to make it clear that she is ducking him on this.  We the people need the full story.

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