In a Politico interview this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom echoed themes that the state’s Democrats have been touting for years. They say California is leading the nation in bold new policy directions, such as toward universal healthcare. “That’s the real story coming out of California,” said Newsom. “A lot of the think tanks that are informing these presidential candidates, are informing their policies. But California is doing. We’re implementing.”
One need only go back to the previous week to see exactly what the governor is “doing” and “implementing.” That’s when Newsom and lawmakers agreed to a new budget, which spends a record $215 billion. Given the size of Democratic legislative supermajorities and the power of the party’s progressive wing, the budget was viewed as fairly restrained because it didn’t significantly raise taxes or include any monumental new programs, such as single-payer healthcare.
But disappointment from the Left does not obscure reality. The budget more than twice the size of the first budget Jerry Brown passed after he took over as governor eight years ago. It includes some fiscally responsible elements – boosts in the rainy day fund to help weather an eventual downturn and extra payments to pay down soaring pension debts – but no new ideas.
Actually, the budget epitomizes one of the oldest approaches known to government. That is spending as much money as possible on every conceivable program – except perhaps on fundamental ones such as roads, which receive a tiny percentage of the budget. There’s nothing creative or innovative within its fine print and nothing worth emulating elsewhere.
Progressives control the state’s politics. Reducing poverty and inequality are the highest priorities among proponents of that political philosophy. Sadly, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, at a dispiriting 20 percent using the Census Bureau’s cost-of-living-adjusted standard. The state’s income inequality is “on display in the Bay Area, where the riches of Silicon Valley … sit uneasily next to growing encampments,” as Politico put it.
What does the budget offer to help fix that problem?
There’s a modest plan to allow housing development on state-owned surplus parcels to help boost housing supply and more state funding for low-income housing. There’s a plan to let young, low-income people, regardless of immigration status, sign up for Medi-Cal. There’s more money for early education, preschool, college tuition, mental-health programs, police training. There’s a mandate for people to have health insurance or face a fine.
California has been implementing such spending policies for years, but its poverty rates, debt levels, poor schools and crumbling infrastructure never get noticeably better. That’s because California rarely tries competitive, innovative or reform-minded strategies. Its top officials are stuck in a time warp where higher taxes, more regulations and bigger state bureaucracies are the only imaginable approaches.
Newsom’s budget expands services for the poor and “may alleviate (poverty’s) symptoms,” noted CalMatters columnist Dan Walters but “ignore(s) root causes of California’s highest-in-the-nation poverty.” That’s spot on.
If California’s Democratic officials really want to offer model for the nation, they ought to try something that addresses those root causes. Instead we get yet another round of stale and costly spending programs that, if copied throughout the country, will only make the nation poorer and lead it more deeply into debt.
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