From RINO to Redux

Laer Pearce Author, Crazifornia
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Yesterday, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed his last gubernatorial documents and spiffed up the governor’s office so he could get his security deposit back as the next tenant prepared to move in today.

The man who promised his charisma was sufficient to break down the boxes that hobble Sacramento leaves the place with all its boxes intact, and more than a few new boxes to boot — they’re just painted a greener shade of regulatory over-kill. As it turns out, the Schwarzenegger legacy isn’t governmental and budgetary reform; it’s AB 32 and SB 375, California’s hysterical global warming twins, and the passel of business-strangling regulations spawned in their wake. The incoming governor is apparently intent on protecting Schwarzenegger’s green legacy with the appointment of John Laird, co-author of AB 32, as Secretary of Natural Resources, ensuring that natural resources, not resourceful humans, will continue to be the focus of California state government. The leftist YubaNet.com declared the Laird appointment “sets off green fireworks,” adding:

On the first day of the New Year, Governor Brown showed that he is committed to a green agenda by appointing John Laird as the Secretary of Resources. … From waste reducer to wildlife protector Laird is sure to make 2011 a great year for the environment.

But California’s regulatory crusade to coddle the environment without care for cost is not going to be the focus for Jerry Brown, as much as he might like it to be — it’s going to be the budget, debt and the ever-less-sustainable public employee pension funding gaps. If Jerry Brown is going to succeed on that score, he’s eventually going to have to take on the public employee unions he empowered in the 1970s when he signed the law giving them truly impressive collective bargaining rights.

It was the unions that terminated the Terminator. When Schwarzenegger put four mostly sensible reform initiatives on a special election ballot in 2005, he was handily disposed of by the unions, particularly the California Teachers Association, which mortgaged its headquarters to buy even more anti-Schwarzenegger ads. By most accounts, Brown is also plotting a special election strategy to fix the budgetary mess. First, he will get a budget through Sacramento (now, thanks to Proposition 25, requiring only the votes of the Legislature’s Democrats) that will include sweeping cuts in spending for popular state services, then he will call a special election and ask the voters to do what even the state’s all-powerful Democrats don’t have enough votes to accomplish: raise taxes and fees.

He should be able to count on union support for the higher taxes, but the voters’ midterm rejection of Prop 21’s “park tax” and their approval of Prop 22’s and Prop 26’s restrictions on Sacramento’s non-tax revenue generation tricks indicates Brown’s going to have a tough time pulling off a special election win. Even if he does — and especially if he doesn’t — he’s still going to have to deal with pension reform if he has any hope of fixing the state’s fiscal mess. Meaningful reform seems just about impossible under Brown, as Orange County Register opinion columnist Mark Landsbaum wrote yesterday:

Considering their clout, if public employee unions had a better candidate to run for governor, wouldn’t they have run him? Why didn’t they? Because Jerry Brown’s candidacy was their dream come true.

California’s future will be anything but golden unless Brown pulls off a “Nixon goes to China” with the state’s public employee unions and brokers sweeping and significant changes to public employee benefits. Tweaking at pension formulas isn’t going to be enough. Even the wholesale selling out of younger public employees by older pension-rich ones isn’t going to pull California out of the hole. No, dialing back California’s half-trillion-dollar unfunded pension liability before the state’s finances collapse entirely is going to take the kind of reform that will pose a threat to the future clout of the very public employee unions that swept Brown into office.

Can he do it? I don’t think so. His appointments thus far, while still few in number, indicate that the Jerry Brown we’re getting is the Jerry Brown we feared we’d get — Moonbeam Redux. He will use the Democrat’s complete control of Sacramento and the money and influence of his union benefactors to do everything he can to protect the status quo, because unlike where Sacramento was when he first came into office on the heels of Ronald Reagan, Sacramento today is exactly as he would like it to be — fat with government jobs and programs, committed to environmental over-regulation, and firmly in the hands of the unions he knows and loves.

Jerry Brown’s real challenge arises from the fact that the status quo will be impossible to protect unless the state’s businesses shake off the national recession and the state’s obsession with business-flogging and somehow begin to generate more jobs and more tax payments. Short of that unlikely salvation, it’s anyone’s guess how Brown will succeed in keeping his benefactors happy while dodging California’s looming fiscal black hole.

Laer Pearce, a veteran of three decades of California public affairs, is currently working on a book that shows how everything wrong with America comes from California.