With less than three weeks until California's primary election, Governor Jerry Brown continues to campaign for a record fourth term by acting as governor while the race for the right to lose to him in November between a pair of little-known yet sharply contrasting Republicans continues to intrigue in an oddly low-key sort of way.
Brown on Tuesday performed the annual gubernatorial chore of issuing the "May revise" to the state budget he proposed in January. Since state revenues are running above projections and Brown is loathe to accede to accelerating demands for spending from Democratic Party interest groups, there's a different sort of tension attached to the state budget than existed during the long lean years of California's chronic budget crisis.
Brown eliminated the approximately $27 billion state budget deficit he assumed along with the office in January 2011 through a combination of budget cuts, new revenues (via his 2012 Proposition 30 tax-hike initiative), and an improved economy. But there are demands not only to restore the budget cuts that helped swing the state budget from deep deficit to relatively comfortable surplus but also to expand a host of social programs.
One policy area in which Brown is expanding, because it is part of the Obamacare national health legislation, is in health care spending. MediCal coverage for lower-income Californians is being extended to roughly a third of the state's population. That will be financed by a combination of federal and state funds.
And Brown is taking another gingerly step into the sticky wicket of underfunded obligations to retired public employees. In this case, proposing the beginning of more state funding for the underfunded teachers pension system. Oft touted as a major crisis in the making, it appears that the system will run out of money in about 30 years or so unless changes are made.
So Brown is proposing a new contribution from the state, at a rising rate, beginning in the next year with $450 million. He's also proposing that the system's funding challenge be addressed in a three-part way, i.e., by state government, the employees themselves, and the local school districts which actually employ all these teachers.
Remember, they are not state employees. They don't work for Brown, they work for more than a thousand locally-elected school district boards, one of which I served on long ago in my first and only foray into elected public office. And thus the principle of subsidiarity which underlies realignment, first introduced to deal with overcrowded state prisons with low-level offenders shifted from state prisons to local jails, makes its way into the education compensation question.
Before unveiling the budget, which will be haggled over for the next month and then adopted in a form looking much like that proposed by Brown, the governor unveiled a bipartisan agreement on establishing a state budget rainy day fund.
Then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger got a rainy day fund passed before leaving office, but it required approval by the state's voters. (Brown also had an informal rainy day fund of his own during his very first term as governor in the 1970s, sitting on a huge state budget surplus and resisting multiple demands from liberals for new spending. Howard Jarvis turned around and used it as an excuse for his Prop 13 property tax reduction measure.) Since Democratic labor pols found Schwarzenegger's rainy day fund too restrictive, it kept getting its date at the ballot box postponed. But Brown came up with an altered concoction. Since the Democrats have at least temporarily lost their super-majority in the state Senate due to three senators being on suspension for ethical and legal violations, he needed some Republican support.
Brown ended up with the support of Republican legislative leaders in both houses; a good harbinger for his month of budget politics ahead.
Incidentally, how do you like Brown's TV campaign commercials? What? You haven't seen any?
Well, you're going to see a lot more of the return of Jack Bauer on your TV screen before you see Jerry Brown ads. In fact, the revived season of 24 is likely to have come and gone before Brown runs his first TV ad going for his historic fourth term as governor of California.
While Brown sits on a warchest of well over $20 million, occasionally letting his very overqualified campaign Doberman Pinschers Ace Smith and Dan Newman off the leash to take a few bites out of opponents unwary enough to take ill-advised swipes at Brown, the Republican, er, race for the right to be crushed by Brown in November continues to unfold.
It's kinda like a snail race, but with a little more shouting.
Far right state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, the politician from Twin Peaks (I kid you not) who looks rather like Breaking Bad's Walter White, has had a big edge over the hope of Republican modernizers, investment banker and former U.S. assistant Treasury secretary Neel Kashkari.
Donnelly is best known as an overzealous gun advocate (concealed weapons for all!) who tried to take a loaded Colt .45 pistol onto an airliner and rallied angry white people at the Mexican border against illegal immigrants. Kashkari is best known as then Treasury Secretary Pat Paulsen's (too bad that name's not quite right) front man for the Wall Street bailout.
What's not to like about a choice like that?
One choice is clearly worse than the other and would lead to a Brown victory the scope of which would drive California further into one-party state territory. I've seen one-party nations up close. Japan actually worked pretty well. Mexico not so much. While neither was very democratic, true autocracy was still off in the distance.
Would California work as a one-party state? It's certainly not impossible. But knowing some of the folks involved I strongly suspect that too many dumb choices would be made. Then there are questions of arrogance and corruption. With two of the three suspended Democratic state senators charged with deeply corrupt activities -- my favorite of course being the San Franciscan champion of gun control who promised to broker international arms deals with jihadists! -- that danger is already clear and present.
In any event, the Republican race to lose to Jerry Brown in the fall has intensified. Relatively speaking.
GOP modernizer hope Neel Kashkari first put a half-million of his own money into the campaign to buy some TV ad time. Nice, as I noted in a newsletter, but it won't get very far. He then put another half-million in, thus tying up what is apparently a very large chunk of his personal net worth.
He's gotten some big endorsements in the past few weeks from Republican big shots who fear the embarrassment to the party that Donnelly represents. 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former California Governor Pete Wilson, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and former U.S. Secretary of State Condi Rice has all weighed in on his behalf.
But despite the big endorsements and the dramatic personal commitment which Kashkari's own contributions represents, his campaign has still taken in less than $200,000 from other sources in May, according to my read of California Secretary of State records.
The big Republican names are not bringing much big Republican money. Kashkari's fundraising looks like that of a congressional candidate, not a gubernatorial candidate.
Fortunately, perhaps, for Kashkari, Tim Donnelly showed why he scares the party establishment when he launched blithering attack on Kashkari for supposedly aiding the introduction of Islamic sharia law into America. How? Because, as an assistant US Treasury secretary, Kashkari gave a welcoming address at a government conference for Islamic bankers.
This is lunatic blathering on Donnelly's part. Especially since Kashkari is Hindu, not Muslim, and hardly endorsed sharia law here or anywhere.
Showing that he is not completely irrational or imbecilic, Donnelly, after some more deranged blithering, finally admitted as much. But only after Kashkari spokesman and former Schwarzenegger gubernatorial press secretary Aaron McLear, pulled a dramatic move by phoning in to a radio show to confront Donnelly.
And again fortunately for Kashkari, Donnelly is campaigning by rolling around the state in an RV. (Which he's actually pretty good at when he isn't saying really stupid stuff.) He doesn't have any money to speak of. I think he's raised about $30,000 this month. So it's not impossible to catch him. But it's much more likely to happen if there is an independent expenditure effort -- okay, an arguably independent effort -- to take down Donnelly.
As of today, that effort has not yet emerged.