No state is in a bigger fiscal jam than California, with its structural budget deficit and massive unfunded liabilities for well-compensated public employees. The state’s business climate is atrocious, and unemployment has topped 12 percent. Yet California voters on Tuesday not only sidestepped the national backlash against liberal Democratic policies; they declared that they want more of them.
The voters resurrected the career of their 1970s-era governor, Jerry Brown—well known for his “small is beautiful” policies, which squelched infrastructure growth in what was then a rapidly growing state, and for his support for collective bargaining rights for public-employee unions, which paved the way for many of the state’s fiscal problems today. Those unions bankrolled his campaign for governor this time around. Brown even declared during a debate with rival Meg Whitman that “everything is on the table,” meaning that he would consider fiddling with Proposition 13, which limits property taxes and has been the third rail of California politics. Brown insists that he won’t support tax increases without a referendum, which at least offers a preview of what’s coming.
A cast of liberal Democratic candidates in California managed to survive the nationwide Republican onslaught. Senator Barbara Boxer won reelection. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who brazenly defied state law on gay marriages and who fought against pension reform in his city, won overwhelmingly in his race for lieutenant governor. Conservatives helped his cause by supporting a write-in candidate in order to deny the post to tax-raising liberal Republican Abel Maldonado. Bill Lockyer won reelection as state treasurer, despite stating recently at a Milken Institute forum that there was no pension crisis and offering this take on the state’s $300 billion–plus unfunded pension liability: “There is a point in having decent pensions in both public and private life and instead of attacking and victimizing people let’s talk about the inadequate pensions in the private sector and figuring out how to fix that problem.” Democrats even won a few state assembly seats that should have gone to Republicans in an ordinary year, let alone during a Republican wave.
Californians are accustomed to hobbling along with political leadership that sees government as the first answer to everything. But Tuesday’s most disturbing results were on ballot initiatives. Yes, voters rejected a state-parks tax proposal and refused to undermine legislative redistricting, but they supported Proposition 25, which lowers the state’s two-thirds vote requirement for passing budgets. This will push Republicans in the legislature further to the margins, and the dominant Democrats will have additional tools at their disposal to raise taxes early and often. While there’s considerable debate over whether Prop. 25 will allow certain tax increases with a simple majority, there’s no question that the unions and Democratic leadership in Sacramento are celebrating the passage of this destructive measure.
Voters also approved the noxious Proposition 22, which carves out a portion of the state budget for eminent-domain-abusing redevelopment agencies. And they handily rejected Proposition 23, which would have suspended the state’s global-warming law until unemployment came down to a more reasonable level. Some of us had great hope that Proposition B, which would impose modest reforms on San Francisco’s pension and health-care systems for retired employees, would win passage. It was sponsored by the city’s public defender, Jeff Adachi, a progressive who argued that pension reform was necessary to stave off cuts to other city programs. It went down to overwhelming defeat.
California is said to be a national trendsetter, but Tuesday night, it lagged behind the rest of the country. The state continues to move toward the financial precipice. It’s becoming more likely that California is, as former state librarian Kevin Starr put it, a “failed state.” For this, Golden State voters have no one to blame but themselves. I can only take comfort in H. L. Mencken’s words: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”