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Split Personality

State’s Fiscal Mess Starts with Voters Who Want Services but Don’t Want to Pay for Them


As Jerry Brown prepares to roll out his second act as governor (“Moonbeam: The Sequel”?) the toughest problem he faces is neither the state’s financial woes nor the Capitol’s political dysfunction: It’s California’s dual-personality disorder.

While politicians, the media, and government chrome-domes all get deservedly blamed for the mess in Sacramento, there is considerable evidence that the polarized partisan gridlock afflicting state politics simply mirrors the basic sentiments of the statewide electorate. In other words, Californians hate taxes but love government services, an everything-for-nothing attitude that is conflicted and ultimately self-canceling.

Capitol Letters

The latest data to illustrate the point comes from a recently released University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll, which found that:

• By a huge plurality — 44-to-6 percent — voters said they would rather cut spending than raise taxes to address the state’s $25-billion deficit (another 44 percent opted for an unspecified combination of cuts and taxes).

• By an even larger margin, however, voters said they either oppose any cuts or favor more spending on education and public health programs — the two largest items in the budget. The only area where there is broad agreement for reducing expense is on prisons, which represent just 7 percent of the budget.

• By 70-to-24 percent, voters said that “there is enough waste and inefficiency in government spending that we can reduce most of the state deficit by cleaning up programs without cutting programs like health care and education” — an implausible scenario that belies the fact that health care and education alone account for nearly two-thirds of total state spending.

During the campaign, virtually the only budget proposal put forth by Brown was that he would lock himself in a room with legislators of both parties and not come out until there was bipartisan agreement, a plan likely to have about as much effect as publishing poetry.

But even before being inaugurated, Brown switched gears to embark on a completely different course than meeting with insiders in Capitol backrooms. Instead, he has rolled out a plan for a series of statewide, open public forums on California’s financial woes, which began this week. Positioning himself as Professor Jerry, chief instructor of a one-man basic civics education campaign, Brown’s characteristically novel move is an intriguing, long-shot strategy that takes a fresh approach to addressing the fundamental contradiction underpinning gridlock.

As Joel Fox, a longtime small-business advocate and proprietor of the Fox & Hounds political Web site, explained it recently: “So, what to make of the California electorate’s pro-government, no-more-taxes dichotomy? Can we say that Californians have big hearts and small wallets?”

FUN WITH NUMBERS: Final state spending reports on the just-completed campaign have yet to be filed, but it’s already clear that Meg Whitman, the defeated Republican candidate for governor, established all kinds of extraordinary records for a self-funded candidate.

Easily eclipsing the $100-million mark established by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former eBay CEO Whitman invested at least $144,155,806.11 of her own money in the campaign, according to the first post-election report, a number that does not include another $30 million or so she raised from other sources.

For comparison’s sake, that works out to an average of $228,456.11 per day between declaring her candidacy in February of 2009 and Election Day 2010. For those keeping score at home, that’s $9,519 per hour, $158.65 per minute, and $2.64 per second — 24/7, each and every one of the 631 days she was in the race.

Despite the fact that, according to Whitman campaign sources, all the checks cleared for the army of political strategists who rode the gravy train and managed her to a landslide, 13-point defeat by Brown, her campaign team refused an invitation to show up for the traditional, all-day post-election seminar at UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies.

Berkeley has staged the event after every gubernatorial race since 1990, bringing together the consultants for the major campaigns, along with political scientists, reporters and pollsters, for discussions and debates that are later edited into a book that serves as a historical record of how California chooses its governors. Never before has a major campaign refused to attend.

“Not showing up at one of the most respected forums in California politics is cowardly,” said Democratic operative Roger Salazar, who ran an independent campaign committee on behalf of Brown. “You’d think that $60,000 a month [campaign salary] would buy you some guts.”

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