When Jerry Brown became governor yet again in 2011, I warned my conservative friends not to be too upset at the prospect. “It’s not going to get any better than this,” I’d say. Indeed, Brown’s final eight years in office were mostly smooth sailing, and the dwindling number of Capitol Republicans rarely criticized his administration too harshly.
There was plenty to moan about — the record-setting budgets, a major tax increase, the overheated climate-change rhetoric, the failure to rein in unfunded liabilities — but a lot to commend, as well. He got a red-ink-soaked budget on track, passed modest pension reform, dealt successfully with a court-driven prison-overcrowding crisis, killed off the state’s ham-fisted redevelopment agencies, and generally behaved as the Last Adult in Sacramento.
Brown didn’t really live up to his ballyhooed Canoe Theory of Politics. Instead of paddling a little to the Left and little to the Right, he paddled a lot more to the Left than the Right. But he kept the lid on new programs and vetoed most (but not all) of the wackiest bills. Brown always kept spendthrift lawmakers aware of the looming fear of recession.
My main beef is he never used his treasure trove of political capital to achieve lasting reform. He could have revamped the pension systems, for instance, or addressed the state’s infrastructure crisis (rather than spending wildly on a bullet-train boondoggle). It’s all relative, so this is good enough for California, at least by modern standards. If he were 10 years younger, Brown might be on the Democratic presidential debate stage.
Basically, the Brown era signaled the last years of traditional liberal governance. The new governor, former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, comes out of the party’s progressive wing. Democrats have long controlled the Capitol, but an anti-Trump backlash hastened the state GOP’s long-coming meltdown. A couple of GOP lawmakers even recently jumped ship. That means no check on Democrats, which makes this shift even more noteworthy. Looking back at 2019, we get a vision of the future — and there’s reason for concern.
Newsom was stuck dealing with raging wildfires and a bankrupt public utility that began shutting down parts of the electrical grid to prevent even more fires. This brought back shades of Gray Davis, who in 2003 was recalled by voters (and replaced by nominally Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) in the midst of rolling blackouts caused by a failed electricity deregulation plan. That’s not just because of the obvious electricity parallels, but because Newsom’s tepid response was reminiscent of the deer-in-the-headlights Davis.
The wildfire/electricity mess is related to liability rules, an overly bureaucratic regulatory climate, and an environmental approach to forest lands that limited brush clearance. None of these matters could quickly be fixed by any governor — even one who had a clue what to do about it. But the real trouble signs in 2019 have come from the governor’s decision to sign measures that likely would have sent his predecessor reaching for the veto pen.
I’ve covered the worst new law for The American Spectator. This was Assembly Bill 5, which banned many companies from using contractors as their workforce. It epitomizes the new, more aggressive strain of progressivism that isn’t content creating new programs and raising taxes — but is willing to destroy large segments of the private economy. The goal seems to be punishing “evil” businesses. If people’s lives are destroyed in the process, so be it.
The targets of the law were Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and other ride-sharing and delivery companies whose business model is based on using independent contractors as drivers. The union-backed legislation is designed to force these companies (lawmakers exempted most other businesses from its rules, including attorneys, physicians, real-estate agents, and insurance sales people) to hire their drivers as permanent employees and pay them benefits.
Instead, we’re seeing predictable results. Freelance writers, photographers, and artists were not exempted from the measure — and the layoff notices have been coming to these workers as the year’s end approaches. The newly unemployed shouldn’t worry, though. The law’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said in a tweet (as quoted by Reason): “These were never good jobs. No one has ever suggested that, even freelancers.”
That’s progressivism reduced to one short tweet. These folks know what’s best for us and can determine what jobs are good and which ones shouldn’t exist. When it comes to drivers, hundreds of thousands of jobs could be at risk, according to a recent economic study. Companies that hire drivers have filed suit and are gathering signatures for an initiative that would exempt these workers, but it’s anybody’s guess how this madness might shake out.
Newsom also signed a bill imposing statewide rent control, even though it’s an unquestionable fact that rent control depresses housing supply. Even California officials are starting to realize that the state’s sky-high housing prices are the result of regulations that squelch housing construction. Yet there’s been no legislative progress in addressing those state-imposed restrictions, only a push for more subsidized housing and passage of the one sure-fire way to quickly make the situation worse.
The governor also signed a package of laws that will slowly strangle the charter-school industry (even though both sides depicted it as a compromise), which is the state’s main educational bright spot. The new Legislature is targeting the gig economy, the housing industry, and the schools. Quite obviously, the next target for their destruction is healthcare. Look out for coming plans for single payer.
As Californians, we’re used to the ridiculous spending plans and the state’s refusal to deal with problems (homelessness, soaring pension liabilities, tax rates that are driving businesses out of state) that are of its own making. That’s been standard fare, and certainly was true during the Brown administration. But we’re heading into a brave new world. I predicted we’d be pining for the days of Jerry Brown.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.