Over the decade or so that I’ve written about political issues in California, a recurring question has bothered me: Why is it that California’s political leaders can’t figure out how to have a progressive-leaning state while simultaneously not being stupid?
Here’s what I mean: California is going to continue trending Democratic for years. It is what it is. They’re going to pass Nanny State legislation targeting ketchup packets and babble woke nonsense all the time. It is what it is.
But can’t they walk and chew gum? Can’t they manage a state that is both left-leaning and at the same time make sure the proverbial trains run on time?
I would think it’d be both to the benefit of the Democratic political establishment, who would have their worldview and governance validated, and the ordinary person, who would be paying high taxes but at least sort of get their money’s worth.
My threshold for competent governance is real simple here: not stupid. That’s all I’m looking for.
For example, when they aren’t busy finding the time to micromanage under what conditions a restaurant can hand out straws to customers, can’t state officials figure out how to run a not-utterly-incompetent Employment Development Department?
Can’t California be progressive and all that but also not have EDD send tens of billions in fraudulent payments?
This is the state of Silicon Valley; why are state officials incapable of leveraging the state’s technological talent and capital to bringing state government into the 21st century?
Is that too much to ask for?
They already screwed up on the high-speed rail project. Had they been able to hammer out the bullet train at the initial costs they were talking about, at a fraction of what it is today, on the timeline they initially outlined, that would’ve been quite the achievement.
Despite any gripes one might still have about it, like whether those tens of billions would’ve been better spent on the project versus other things, it would’ve been an impressive achievement and a boon to mass transit advocates.
It would’ve shown that progressive California could actually deliver a tangible thing, on time and at a reasonable cost. But almost everyone with any sense knows what we instead have is nothing short of disaster. The train is years behind schedule and at multiples of the original cost. Which is a shame. Like Jerry Brown, I like trains. I’ve enjoyed the Alta Velocidad Española line in Spain several times and I like the idea of hopping on a train to San Francisco from Southern California so I don’t have to worry about getting my car broken into or paying some ungodly amount for parking.
Now that it is where it is, why is it so hard for state leaders to just end it and figure out a better use of the tens of billions of dollars they would otherwise spend on the bullet train?
California definitely did the right thing in legalizing marijuana. It was a win for progressives and libertarians alike. But it’s been over five years since voters approved Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana, and the black market is still thriving.
It’s no mystery why. California’s tax and regulatory climate is making it hard for those willing to follow the law to do so. Onerous regulations have discouraged many growers and sellers from entering the legal market, while high taxes make buying legal marijuana significantly more expensive than just sticking with the good old-fashioned black market.
Former assemblyman and current state Attorney General Rob Bonta years ago proposed that California ease the tax burden on the legal marijuana market in order to help encourage more lawful market participation. That was exactly what the situation called for. Evidently, the idea made too much sense for Sacramento, it never got anywhere, and taxes remain as high as ever.
While state officials are busy imposing ethnic studies requirements on high schools, can’t they also make sure that high schoolers can read, write and do math at grade level?
Consider that in 2019, just 51% of the state’s students met California’s standards in English Language Arts and just 40% met them in math. Meanwhile, low-income, Black, and Latino students — and especially Black and Latino students from low-income families — consistently lag even those abysmal results. And on top of that, California consistently lags most of the country in standardized test scores.
Perhaps state lawmakers could reflect for just a moment on the, to borrow a phrase, systemically racist outcomes of the K-12 system and introduce accountability measures to boot crummy teachers and reward talented teachers who deliver results. They may even want to heed polling from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California showing that Black (73%) and Latino (69%) Californians would support a school voucher system. Politicians would do that if they actually cared about poor, Black and Latino students. Big “if,” though.
If I’ve learned anything about how the political machine in California works, it’s that state officials and their bench of “experts” will work real hard to make “BIPOC” and “Latinx” a thing because they’re a bunch of hacks who derive their wisdom from Twitter, but they won’t actually do what needs to be done to help such students if it stands in the way of a teachers union endorsement.
Hence, the mediocre K-12 system, crackdowns on charter schools and no talk of vouchers.
While state officials are busy talking about the need for more housing construction, can’t they, I don’t know, make it easier and cheaper to build more housing by tweaking the California Environmental Quality Act and urging cities to scrap costly mandates on developers? Jerry Brown called CEQA reform “the Lord’s work.”
I’ve been in more editorial board meetings than I can count for years with Democratic members of the Assembly and state Senate across Southern California who all nod in agreement about the need to curb CEQA abuses but then do precisely nothing about it. What’s the hold up? Do they really need a Sierra Club or trial lawyers group campaign contribution that badly?
While California has a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, perhaps they can ensure the criminal justice system actually, I don’t know, corrects and rehabilitates? Consider, for example, a January 2019 audit report with the revealing title, “Several poor administrative practices have hindered reductions in recidivism and denied inmates access to in-prison rehabilitation programs.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature have been busy throwing hundreds of millions of dollars in raises and bonuses to the prison guards union as a political favor for opposing the recall (kudos to the handful of legislators like Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco for voting against doing so). Imagine, just imagine if they gave the prison guards’ union half of what they gave them and devoted the rest of the hundreds of millions of dollars to rehabilitation and crime prevention. That would seem like a better, more sensible use of public funds. But maybe I’m just insane for thinking better, more sensible uses of public funds is the goal here.
While the state is busy fighting climate change, maybe it should not be closing down nuclear plants. If climate change is the existential threat people say it is, why let Diablo Canyon, which produces nearly 10% of the state’s electricity, carbon-free, shut down? Wouldn’t the vaguely intelligent thing be to keep it open? Wouldn’t a smart thing be to make California a leader in next-generation nuclear power? I mean, if the French can get most of their electricity from nuclear, why can’t we get some or even some more?
If you’ve made it this far, bless you. You already know that for most or even all of these, they are likely to remain nothing more than hot air. There’s no fairy tale ending to this. California will remain stuck with empty-headed sloganeering buffoons in most offices of government for the foreseeable future. At least they’ve given me something to write about for so long.
Sal Rodriguez can be reached at email@example.com.