Say what you will about former Gov. Jerry Brown, but he did in fact govern as an adult. He spent too much money and promoted boondoggles such as the bullet train and a twin tunnel project that would burrow under the Sacramento River in the Delta, but he could at least be counted on to veto the wackiest measures that made their way out of the Legislature. He took national stances, some of them pretty wacky, but was focused on California matters.
After lawmakers sent Brown a bill requiring presidential candidates to release five years of their tax returns in order to secure a place on California’s general-election ballot, he seemed peeved. “Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?” he wrote in his veto statement. “Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?”
Our new governor, Gavin Newsom, showed some early signs of responsible leadership. He pared back the size of the high-speed rail project by limiting it to a short section of the Central Valley. That decision may ultimately mean the end of a $77 billion project that has little appeal for anyone who isn’t a rail junkie or government contractor. He slashed the tunnel project in half.
But last month Newsom signed Senate Bill 27, to require those tax returns — something that made him king of the Trump resistance, but undermined his reputation in Sacramento. Even left-leaning pundits savaged the decision. The Sacramento Bee editorial page is run by a former spokesman for Democratic politicians including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, yet it described Newsom’s bill signing as a silly attention-grabbing stunt.
“[I]t will likely be shot down on the grounds that it is unconstitutional,” the newspaper opined. “At a time when American politics is extremely divided and our democratic institutions are under attack, the last thing we need are more cynical ploys to disenfranchise voters.” But the Bee realized that “there’s no rational argument anyone can make to shift the thinking of a politician desperate for attention.”
It reported that Newsom signed the bill on the day of the Democratic debates and leaked “the news to a former staffer who runs an influential Twitter account” so “he’s obviously pining for cable news hits.” If a Democratic governor with eyes for the White House so thoroughly alienates the Democratic-friendly capital newspaper, you know he’s gone over the line. Its author wondered what Democrats will say if states dominated by Republicans try a similar stunt to keep Democratic candidates off the ballot.
But the editorial’s most striking point, and one made by a number of California observers, is that the state has significant problems that should presumably garner the governor’s full attention. California is first in the nation in poverty, when one looks at the Census Bureau’s cost-of-living adjusted standard. We have a homeless crisis that, as I reported for The American Spectator, is leading to a rat-infestation crisis. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Home prices are increasingly out of reach even for affluent residents, given the impact of endless growth controls and land-use regulations. After a long drop in crime rates, they are rising again.
Cities are dealing with soaring pension and unfunded medical costs for the state’s gilded class of government employees, a situation that is leading to service cutbacks and potential bankruptcies for municipalities. To provide a sense of the public-employee problem, consider the recent Bee article noting that “More than 1,000 public pensions in California are so big they exceed IRS limits.” Go figure why municipalities are running out of money.
Another recent article found that California’s pension costs grew six times faster than the national average over the past decade. Other than assuring the state’s unions that he would not tinker with their pensions, Newsom has yet to address the growing pension crisis. But here’s the Bee editorial again: “Playing a resistance hero on TV is a lot more exciting — and easy — than dealing with the serious problems voters elected him to solve.” That one’s got to sting.
California’s Democratic leaders seem most interested in seeing who can get the most attention as leader of that Trump resistance. California has sued the Trump administration 50 times over various federal policies. There are occasional times when a state must take on the federal government, but most of these lawsuits are about posturing. Sure, Republicans have done this, too. Texas filed 48 lawsuits against the Obama administration, but it still would be nice if California’s leaders would tend to pressing matters at home.
“Presidential candidates’ income-tax returns provide voters with essential information regarding the candidate’s potential conflicts of interest, domestic and international business dealings, financial status, and charitable donations,” according to a statement of support of SB 27 from the Service Employees International Union. Indeed they do, and many opponents of the bill would like to see the details of this — and any — president’s tax filings.
But states cannot deny ballot access for not doing so. Releasing returns is not a requirement for running, as the Constitution makes clear. This new law also applies to gubernatorial candidates, but there’s no question it’s all about presidential candidates, and one in particular: Donald Trump. I have no illusions about the sanctity of the legislative process, but using it to troll one candidate in particular is pretty low, even in the California Capitol.
I’m not seriously concerned what the new law means for the national election. This one will ultimately be bounced by the federal courts, hopefully with a strong rebuke. (The Trump campaign and the GOP already have filed a challenge to the law.) But I am concerned about what it says about the judgment of our new governor.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.