ANAHEIM — California’s unprecedented October 7 recall election has led pundits on the opposite coast to trot out their usual clichés about the state’s wacky ways and distasteful habit of “direct democracy.” If you can get past their nasty elitist streak, the commentaries generally offer the sound, reasonable critique that voters had their opportunity to get rid of Gov. Gray Davis just nine months ago and didn’t, so why are they demanding a second chance now?
But what’s far less sound or reasonable is the way so many national pundits essentially let Davis off the hook for his resolute incompetence in five years running the Golden State. Consider these examples from two columnists with sharply different profiles:
According to Paul Krugman of the New York Times, Davis is a scapegoat for matters’ beyond the veteran Democratic politician’s control. “Thanks to the end of the tech boom and the bursting of the tech bubble — with an assist from energy price-gouging — California’s budget has plunged into deficit,” he wrote last week.
Now Krugman’s shrill partisanship — and his practice of blaming the Bush-Enron conspiracy for everything from the cork in Sammy Sosa’s bat to his own receding hairline — may make this apologia predictable. But it’s mostly different only in tone, not content, from the column last week by the Washington Post’s David Broder, long the voice of inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom.
Broder noted that California, like “virtually all states,” faced deficits after the dot-com bubble burst, but that Gov. Davis was hamstrung in dealing with the red ink by partisanship and by voter initiatives dictating state spending.
Now, the point about initiatives is valid to some degree; Proposition 98, enacted by Davis’s teachers union allies in 1988, includes a complex formula mandating education spending, for example. But all governors deal with partisanship. And in the specifics of its budget woes, California isn’t like virtually all states. Yes, virtually all states suffered when capital-gains revenues dwindled after the dot-com bust in spring 2000. But California’s Democratic-controlled state legislature went on a spending binge that lasted well after the dot-com boom ended; the 2000-01 budget approved in late summer 2000 increased spending 14 percent. This was not par for the course in America’s statehouses. Davis went along with it even though he’d warned presciently in 1999 against expanding the size of state government when times were good because of the deficits that would result when the boom was over.
When the bills came due in 2001 and 2002, Davis endorsed fig-leaf budgets built on accounting gimmicks (projecting program savings that wouldn’t necessarily be realized; delaying paying bills into the following fiscal year, etc.) and billions of dollars in borrowing. They did nothing to address a structural deficit of $1 billion a month.
Now the fiscal 2003-04 budget has just won Davis’s approval after eight months of warnings about the state’s cumulative $38 billion in red ink. And despite all those warnings, spending in California is going up by $2.5 billion over last year, the state’s legislative auditor concluded last week after deconstructing the budget’s various subterfuges.
No wonder a USA Today survey published in June of how states dealt with the post-bubble fallout ranked California dead last. No wonder credit-rating agencies rank California as the worst credit risk of any state.
Would Davis have faced a difficult task in reining in spending by his fellow Dems? Sure. But, eager to keep his party’s core constituencies of public employees and social-services advocates happy, he didn’t even try — even though his first year in office, he triangulated quite adeptly in a Sacramento then as now split between very liberal Democrats and deeply conservative Republicans. This, remember, was one of the main theses of the Oct. 11, 1999 Time magazine story that declared Davis “America’s most fearless governor.” (This article is probably now remembered as fondly in Time’s corridors as the “Hitler’s diaries” cover is remembered in Newsweek’s.)
Opposing the recall on grounds that voters had their shot at Davis and didn’t take it is one thing. But opposing the recall on grounds that Davis wasn’t even in the car when California was driven into the ditch is ridiculous.
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