Gavin Newsom was inaugurated as California's 40th governor last Monday, taking over a general-fund budget that is flush with cash and a state government that is in remarkably good shape—at least superficially—from a fiscal perspective. For all his flaws, outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown left Newsom with a $15 billion surplus and a rainy day fund that is nearly full. As an added plus, the economy that is humming along even though an erratic stock market points to storm clouds on the horizon.
The big question is whether Newsom will heed Brown's advice and govern as if there's always a recession around the corner—or ignore the former governor's warnings about Democratic lawmakers who always say "yes" to any "harebrained" spending scheme. Unfortunately, based on Newsom's inaugural words, initial budget and many of his early high-level administrative appointments, the safe money is on the latter. Newsom wants to spend big.
One need not read between the lines in Newsom's introductory words. He spelled it out clearly. Newsom pointed to Brown's inaugural address, which quoted from the Sermon on the Mount. There was the foolish man who built a house on sand and the wise man who built it on rock. "For eight years, California has built a foundation of rock," Newsom said. "Our job now is not to rest on that foundation. It is to build our house upon it."
So now that the state is on solid financial footing, the new governor envisions a rapid expansion of government social programs. "We will support parents so they can give their kids the love and care they need, especially in those critical early years when so much development occurs," Newsom said. That speaks to the $1.8 billion in early childhood programs that the new governor is touting. The term "we," of course, refers to California's taxpayers.
"We will launch a Marshall Plan for affordable housing and lift up the fight against homelessness from a local matter to a state-wide mission," he added. The term "Marshall Plan" is not subtle. That was the American financial assistance program to help Western Europe rebuild after the devastation of World War II, at a cost of $100 billion in current dollars.
Continuing the metaphor of California as a home, Newsom added that "In our home, every person should have access to quality, affordable health care." He has long advocated for some type of universal healthcare coverage (although not necessarily the single-payer system that failed to make it through the Legislature in 2017), and some of his most noteworthy aides have a background in promoting government healthcare programs.
"Everyone in California should have a good job with fair pay," he said. "Every child should have a great school and a teacher who is supported and respected. Every young person should be able to go to college without crushing debt or to get the training they need to compete and succeed. And every senior should be able to retire with security and live at home with dignity." Those are vague, feel-good ideas that would garner few objections. But his ideas for implementing them, such as his bidget plan for free community college, will come with a hefty price tag.
There will be plenty of time to dissect the specific policy proposals that will move forward as the legislative session gets under way. For instance, the community college idea is a particularly bad one. California community colleges already are inexpensive. Making the second year of tuition "free" (the first year already is free for first-time California students) will only clog up the classrooms with free riders, thus making it tougher for those students who are serious about getting an education to get classes and improve their job prospects.
However, the main purpose of this article is to provide a warning amid the exuberance of a new gubernatorial administration. Basically, that financial foundation might be built less on rock and more on sand than many of us would like to believe.
There's no complaining about the size of the budget surplus and rainy day fund, but there's more to a budget than those items. As a comprehensive new California Policy Center report from Ed Ring and Marc Joffe points out, "We estimate that California's total state and local government debt as of 6/30/2017 totaled just over $1.5 trillion. That total includes all outstanding bonds, loans, and other long-term liabilities, along with the officially reported unfunded liability for other post-employment benefits (primarily retiree healthcare), as well as unfunded pension liabilities." That's a 15-percent increase from two years ago—and a number that equals 54 percent of the gross state product.
The Brown administration had done little to deal with the unfunded liabilities. Its one major pension reform law, the Public Employees' Pension Reform Act, was exceedingly modest. In the waning days of his administration, Brown's attorneys argued before the state Supreme Court for changes in the "California Rule," which restricts the ability of governments to reduce pension benefits going forward. That's still unresolved and Newsom already has made clear his opposition to changes in pensions—and one of his top aides comes out of the California Labor Federation.
Bottom line: Just because the general-fund budget is in good shape does not mean that California's overall fiscal picture is all that bright. A responsible new administration would attempt to fix those problems, which are crowding out public services at the local and state level, before engaging in a spending spree that will add to the state burden. Newsom's early budget hits $209 billion overall and includes a grabbag of new programs, although he does send money to pay off some pension debt and is bolstering the rainy day fund.
The outgoing governor increased taxes early and often. It's unwise to add new burdens on taxpayers, especially given that economic boom times always are followed by a bust and many Californians continue to flee the state's high tax burden. Newsom already is proposing new fees on water and 911 service.
California's most notorious public-policy disasters have come, counter-intuitively, during the best fiscal times, when revenues were swelling and budgets were flush with cash. The best example came in 1999, when Gov. Gray Davis signed a law that caused a pension-hiking frenzy and led directly to the state's debt crisis. The stock market was riding high and the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) promised that increasing pensions by 50 percent retroactively wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime because market returns would cover the costs.
It didn't cost a dime, but cost billions of dollars annually in general-fund payments and added hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer-backed liabilities. The biggest danger to California is now a governor who believes that the state is in such great financial shape that he can start spending with wild abandon. He will not be restrained by the Legislature, which now has strong Democratic super-majorities that are itching to spend money. We don't want to wish for an economic downturn, a stock-market crash or another busted housing bubble, but that appears to be the only hope right now to derail the coming spending train.
This column was first published by the California Policy Center.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.