A rotten choice in California

August 26, 2010

Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown want to be California's next governor, but neither has a solution to the economic devastation facing the state, argues Alessandro Tinonga

THE ECONOMIC crisis has hit California as hard as any state in the country.

Unemployment in California is officially 12 percent, 3 percent higher than the national average, and like everywhere, the real level of unemployment and underemployment is much higher. The state has the fourth-highest foreclosure rate in the country. For a second year, the state government is facing a massive budget deficit--this year, it's $19 billion.

California's legislature is paralyzed by endless debates about a budget that was due to be passed in June. In California, the legislature can't approve a budget without a two-thirds majority, which has allowed the Republican minority to shake compromises out of the Democratic Party. Every day that goes by without an approved budget reportedly costs Californians $52.3 million.

Naturally, the focus of this year's race for governor is solving the budget crisis and bringing much-needed economic relief to millions of working Californians. But neither of the two mainstream candidates are offering any solutions.

Meg Whitman
Meg Whitman

BILLIONAIRE MEG Whitman is the Republican Party's candidate. A former head of eBay who also sat on the board of directors of Goldman Sachs, she has a massive war chest at her disposal. Whitman has already spent $100 million--$20 million from her personal funds--making hers the most expensive campaign in California history. She reported spending $531,378 a day in June.

Whitman is offering nothing more than slash-and-burn austerity. According to her Web site, she plans to reduce the state workforce by 40,000, raise the retirement age for state employees, massively reduce funding for welfare programs and establish a spending cap on state spending. She claims these measures will free up $1 billion, which can be reinvested into the University of California and California State University systems.

Whitman's additional plans for "fixing" the state's public education system include establishing merit pay for teachers and creating a "fast track" for creating charter schools.

She also promises to create 2 million private-sector jobs by 2015. How? By cutting taxes on corporations--the time-honored claim of Republicans that never works.

Her program has attracted some of the most powerful business people in California. Five of her biggest contributors have been on the Forbes magazine list of billionaires, including Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang, former Univision head A. Jerrold Perenchio, and hotel and casino magnate William Barron Hilton.

The Meg Whitman solution to the crisis in California is to cater to the rich while balancing the budget on the backs of state workers, teachers, students and those who need support from the state.

While her past as a business tycoon helped her win the Republican primary, it's being used against her in the run-up to the November election against Democrat Jerry Brown. Unions have spent over $5 million in attack ads that paint Whitman as an out-of-touch bigwig trying to buy her way into the governor's mansion. Besides that, however, the Brown campaign has little to offer as a political alternative to Whitman.

In the same way that Whitman expects cash to carry her into office, Brown is relying on his past career and reputation. He has more than 40 years of public office-holding under his belt, including two terms as governor, eight years as the mayor of Oakland and three presidential bids. He's currently the state's attorney general.

Brown likes to brag that he has "an insider's knowledge and an outsider's mind." When he was governor, he refused to live in the state mansion. During one of his campaigns for president, he appointed Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther, as one of his delegates to the Democratic Party convention. Today, as state's attorney general, he prides himself in having taken an 18 percent reduction in pay to help with the tough times.

But what's really remarkable about Brown's campaign is its lack of concrete proposals. Other than making loud and vague pitches for remaking California into a green economy and touting his record of being the "top cop" in that state, Brown doesn't have any specific policies for handling the budget crisis.

In an interview on KCRA, Brown criticized attempts to force more furlough days on state workers, saying, "Employees should not suffer because the governor and legislature have not hashed out a budget deal." But just a few minutes later, he added, "I don't want to rule out furloughs...it'll take some tough decisions. We're going to have to make some cuts that nobody really looks forward to."

If Brown's past is any indication of how he might deal with the current crisis, working Californians have plenty of reasons to worry. Jesse Walker, writing for the American Conservative magazine, called Brown "much more of a fiscal conservative than Governor Reagan."

As governor, he opposed Proposition 13, which cut property taxes and greatly reduced revenue to cities and counties. But after Prop 13 passed, he drastically cut state spending and used much of the surplus his government had built up--roughly $5 billion--to meet the proposition's requirements and help offset the revenue losses.

This effectively destroyed the funding base of local governments and school districts, which thereafter depended largely on Sacramento for their revenue. In 1950, California ranked fifth among the states in per-pupil spending. By the 1990s, it had sunk to the mid-40s in rank.

The Brown campaign has spent very little on advertising so far. There have been no super-rallies, and until last month, none of its staff spoke Spanish fluently. "At times, his campaign feels like a rumor," Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote in the Washington Post.

His campaign's lack of content and exposure has hurt Brown in opinion polls, even among communities that are expected to be Democratic Party strongholds. Case in point, while 63 percent of likely Latino voters are Democrats, Brown has continually lost ground to the Whitman campaign.

Despite her vicious attacks on immigrants during the Republican primary--she said that immigrant children shouldn't receive a public education--Whitman spent millions to run TV and radio ads during the World Cup and erect billboards in Latino communities. Since March, she has had a 14-point gain among Latino voters.

Meanwhile, Brown says he supports immigration reform yet opposes sanctuary cities and driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

WHILE WORKERS and students in the Golden State desperately need more social programs, Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown are offering more of the same--cutting social spending, enticing businesses through tax cuts and deregulation, and scapegoating the poor and oppressed.

California has the eighth-largest economy in the world. If the rich paid their share, it would bring much-needed relief to millions in the state. Overhauling the political priorities in Sacramento will take a massive struggle.

Workers should learn from the example of the California Nurses Association, which thwarted several of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's schemes. Students should continue to organize protests like the day of action on March 4. Only by building a mass movement will working Californians have a brighter future.

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