Grappling With Huge Deficit, California Turns to Veteran Governor

BY Judy Woodruff  December 8, 2010 at 3:34 PM EST

Judy Woodruff

An easy two-part political quiz: 1) which state voted against the national Republican political tide in every one of its major contested races in the midterm elections? And 2) Which state is facing a near-term budget shortfall of $25 billion dollars? Hint: it’s the most populous state in the country.

Answer: California, which is looking at an immediate deficit of $6 billion, and another $19 billion in red ink for the fiscal year starting in July. But with a Democratic-controlled state legislature unhappy with outgoing Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – and disinclined to cooperate with him – it will be up to his successor, Democrat Jerry Brown, to try to lead the way to a solution. Since the entire current California state budget is around $86 billion, you can see Brown has a daunting job ahead of him.

Meanwhile, on the political front, California, like several other Pacific and Rocky Mountain states, was part of the Democrats’ “western firewall,” that not only denied Republicans more seats in the U.S. Senate, and any House pickups in California, but also kept every California statewide office in Democratic hands.

Granted, Golden State voters were motivated to a large degree by dissatisfaction with Schwarzenegger, who has an approval rating in the 30s, after seven years in office, much of it spent fighting with members of both parties in the state legislature. But the two major Republican campaigns, Meg Whitman for governor and Carly Fiorina for U.S. Senate, failed. And this was after Whitman spent $140 million out of her own pocket.

At a time when about 78 million American voters went to the polls in the rest of the country to express their anger or frustration over the economy and disapproval of President Obama and democratic policies on the economy, most of California’s 10 million-plus voters who turned out gave a “thumbs up” to Democratic policies.

In fact, 53 percent of California voters told pollsters they approve of President Obama’s performance in office. This is despite the fact that California faces some of the identical challenges the rest of the nation does – including a 12 percent unemployment rate (2 points higher than the 10 percent national rate), a massive budget deficit, and two political parties that are more bitterly divided than they’ve ever been.

While Washington prepares for Republicans to take control of the House of Representatives, setting up face-offs with President Obama and the still-Democratically-controlled U.S. Senate, California is looking at Democratic majorities in both its state houses. In fact, not a single sitting member of the state legislature was unseated in the recent midterms.

At a conference this week sponsored by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, a key state legislative analyst told a crowd of several hundred that he believes it’ll be very difficult to close the state’s $25 billion budget shortfall any time soon.

Mac Taylor said all the easy government spending cuts have been made, the easy fights have been fought; what’s left to be cut involves real pain – for students, seniors, and the most vulnerable people in the state. He recommended that California’s political leaders think about a fundamental re-alignment of state government, doing away with programs that have outlived their usefulness.

At the conference, I moderated a discussion among Democratic and Republican California-based analysts, who agreed the prospects for cooperation are dim, while holding out some hope that having a new governor come into office creates potential for a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, here in Washington, the presidentially-appointed bipartisan Commission last week recommended massive spending cuts and dramatic tax reforms to close a $1.3 trillion federal budget deficit this year, and multi-trillion dollar federal debt for the decade ahead. While Commission co-chair Erskine Bowles declared that the “era of deficit denial is over,” and 11 of 18 Commission members voted in favor of what the co-chairs put on the table, few expect their recommendations to be enacted into law any time soon.

Whereas Washington enters this period with a 49-year-old President two years into his first term, and facing questions about his ability to bring the two parties together, California’s new Governor, Democrat Jerry Brown, is 72-years-old and has already served two terms as governor, starting back in the mid-1970s. While no one expects miracles, California voters opted for experience. President Obama himself acknowledges he is still learning on the job.