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Before the California state capitol was barricaded in a pandemic-induced frenzy, the occasional visitor to the senate chamber would notice the body’s motto above the dais: “Senaturis Est Civitatis Libertateum Tueri.” There is more value in the gold-leaf letters on the wall than in the idea that elected legislators actually take their duty to protect the liberty of the people seriously.
The state’s indulgent legislature is a case study in excess with effectively no checks and balances. Protecting the liberty of the people ranks lower than the legislators’ desire to gratify their own vain ambitions by doling out privileges and cash. And lots of it.
In previous administrations, Californians mostly could count on a governor to be the adult in the room who would rein in the legislature’s insatiable appetite to spend and tax. Not so with Governor Gavin “Whether You Like It Or Not” Newsom. He personifies public-choice theory on crack.
Newsom has presided over California so well that his own finance department just announced that the state lost 182,000 people in 2020, the first time it has seen a decrease in 120 years. Newsom’s defenders blame the population loss on the pandemic, but the situation mostly revealed what a poor leader Newsom is. Overwrought regulations, high taxes, forest fires, electrical blackouts, drought, rampant homelessness, increased crime, the high cost of living, and a cratering culture — yet The Gav doesn’t see the forest through the burned-out trees. Worse, the fickle legislature refuses to strip him of his near-tyrannical emergency powers.
And now he faces a recall.
The state’s profligate spender-in-chief believes money thrown to key constituencies may quench the rage of millions of voters who want to remove him from office. And while there will be an academic debate about how he can use federal stimulus money for a variety of projects, or if federal funds can backfill expenditures that would have otherwise been paid with general funds. As for the legality of questionable “rebates” directly to the people, The Gav doesn’t care. He will neither have to make any fundamental fiscal reforms nor pay for the grift. Prudent Americans in red states will foot his unscrupulous spending through their federal taxes and inflation.
This week, Newsom began a statewide tour to brag about a $75.7 billion state “surplus” that is burning a hole in his recall jeans. That “surplus” alone is larger than the total expenditures of 44 other states in 2020. Combining substantial capital-gains revenues from the bank accounts of Big Tech billionaires and an embarrassing amount of federal stimulus funds, to the tune of $371 billion in total payments, the governor is taking credit for the windfall. Promising to hand out wads of cash and pay off overdue rent and utility bills while hoping middle-class voters will forget Newsom’s cavalier statewide lockdowns over the past year reeks of bribery.
Consider San Francisco, where Gavin learned government patronage from arguably the finest practitioner the Golden State has ever known, Willie Brown — affectionately remembered as the Ayatollah of the Assembly and then as the city’s mayor, in which job he also mentored a young Kamala Harris. Gavin succeeded Brown, and after years of poor management. Mayor Gavin left the wrecked city and brought his hubris, ill management, and homeless tent cities to Sacramento as lieutenant governor in 2011. Then in 2019, he succeeded another Brown (Jerry) as governor. Add Newsom’s clout to the advocacy of hometown heroines Harris (now the vice president) and House speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the result was a cool $636 million in direct, one-time financial aid to San Francisco.
These aren’t isolated cases. The racket continues because the governor’s most ardent benefactors, the leviathan public-employee unions, are the primary beneficiaries of unmitigated government largesse. They collect a billion dollars every year in forced membership dues and spend it on well-heeled lobbyists and campaign consultants to arrange for hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars in annual appropriations without much pushback or oversight. It’s quite the hustle.
According to the governor’s January 2021 budget proposal, the legislature passed a budget that spent an estimated $455 billion in state and federal funds last year. Of that amount, $214 billion consisted of federal pass-through dollars for local assistance, tied in large measure to the various stimulus packages. That’s a ton of cash going to cities that would otherwise have been on their deathbeds begging federal judges for absolution through plans of adjustment before the pandemic was even a factor. Giving that much money to local governments, including the state’s thousand-plus public-school districts, doesn’t solve their massive debt problems; it exacerbates the liabilities and extends them into the future. “Other people’s money” becomes “future people’s problems.” Or intergenerational theft.
Some observers have connected the governor’s beneficence with an obscure and rarely triggered budget constraint called the Gann Limit, which requires excess revenues to be sent back to the taxpayers when the state’s coffers grow beyond a steady and predictable increase. But as former president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association Joel Fox notes, “returning money to taxpayers who paid them and providing stimulus checks to lower-income and middle-class taxpayers are not one and the same.”
To be sure, real problems do exist, ones that “surplus” or federal stimulus funds could address but might not score the governor political points in the impending recall fight. As Californians brace for another epic drought season sparking fires, for example, money could be used to clean tinderbox forests or build dams. Or perhaps the governor can pay business’s portion of the state’s $20 billion (and growing) Unemployment Insurance Fund debt to the federal government. It was incurred on behalf of tens of thousands of unwitting businesses that were forced to shut their doors and lay off countless employees by Newsom’s lockdowns. And his incompetence in guiding the Employment Development Department has resulted in millions of people getting delayed payments and tens of billions in fraud going to crime syndicates and murderers on death row.
There’s a creepy feeling of collusion (and cowardice) at the capitol as legislators refuse to come out of hiding to reclaim their lawmaking powers. Instead, they perpetuate the pandemic Potemkin charade and propose almost a quarter of a trillion dollars in new taxes and fees they clearly don’t need.
And while residents from other states wonder why California’s blue-state budget decadence continues despite the threat of a recall, Gavin will attempt to silence his hometown critics with the bread of overspending and summer circuses celebrating the state’s reopening on his arbitrary date of June 15.
For all these reasons, a new Latin phrase should adorn the state capitol to reflect the profligate ways of Governor Gavin Newsom and his feudal legislative groupies. “Non regite. Modo pecuniam jacite.” Simply stated: Don’t govern. Just throw money.