I frequently urge naysayers not to write off California, which is full of good people and slices of very real American life. I love the part of the country I came from – Oklahoma and Texas – and always will. In any given election, you don’t have to worry nearly as much about those states as you do about present-day California. But there is much to want to save about California, and I hate hearing people say the state should just drop off into the Pacific Ocean or be handed over to Mexico. It’s not that simple or clear-cut. (For a taste of the reason, look at the red-blue county map of the Golden State.)
There is, however, something very simple and clear-cut about the choice Californians will make in the election on Tuesday. There are seven votes that will set California’s course for the future. Three of them represent a choice between driving the state into a comprehensive bankruptcy – fiscal, economic, political – and giving it the breathing room it needs to begin recuperating. Two will decide whether Californians have a chance, in this lifetime, to change the face of their legislature in Sacramento. The other two will decide whether the difficulty of raising taxes, instituted by Proposition 13, is retained, and whether it applies to the stealth raising of taxes by calling them “fees.”
Three of the votes relate to California’s environmental laws. Assembly Bill 32 (AB32), enacted in 2006, requires a 30% reduction from the 1990 level of greenhouse-gas emissions (GHG) by 2020. That equates to a 15% reduction from today’s level. The economy was roaring when AB32 was signed, which doesn’t make it any less misguided, but did seem at the time to mitigate the costs it would impose. The economy is no longer roaring.
There are a number of things wrong with AB32, starting with the idea that there is some “scientific,” politically neutral way for one state in one country on one continent to identify how and where GHGs are exceeding a prescribed level. The abstract truth is that AB32 is quixotic and absurd. But there is a pragmatic truth too: on full implementation, AB32 would automatically become the pretext not for achieving absolute GHG reductions, but for strong-arming one business, industry, county, utility, or individual after another to undertake costly changes in behavior. Those changes would drive up prices across the board for both individual consumers and business.
Even Californians with jobs in 2010 have no reservoir of resources left to call on. Much of the middle class is on a razor-thin edge: one small push and it will no longer be possible to keep paying the mortgage and feeding the family and paying the utility bills and paying for transportation to work. The fact that environmental zealots don’t want the middle class to actually have all those things is the crux of the matter. If the zealots’ experiment on the Golden State is carried forward, Californians will have to learn that lesson the hard way.
So what are the three votes? First, there is Proposition 23, which calls for delaying the implementation of AB32 until California’s unemployment is back down below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters. It’s not a repeal of AB32, but it’s a start.
I note also that there’s a difference between sensible, responsible environmentalism and ideological extremism. Wanting to avoid extremism is not tantamount to repudiating environmentalism altogether. We can go ahead and water farms in the Central Valley and refine oil better in Bakersfield without throwing up our hands about plastic trash on the highways and industrial toxins in the rivers and streams. But absurd law is a huge open door to both ideological extremism and corruption, and AB32 is absurd. Like ObamaCare, it needs to be repealed and replaced.
Second, there is the vote for governor. Meg Whitman has stated that she would suspend many of the provisions of AB32 (an action authorized within the bill) while the state’s economy is in toilet-swirling mode. Jerry Brown, by contrast, has spent his current tenure as California attorney general strong-arming localities within the state to comply with AB32 in advance – a pattern that (a) demonstrates how he would behave if he regained the governor’s office, and (b) is in keeping with his long history of favoring boutique environmentalism over California’s productive industries.
Brown, indeed, can be expected to oppose and/or financially punish the things California needs most: new nuclear power plants, offshore drilling, retooled refineries, and an updated water distribution infrastructure. His political history is exactly consonant with the coercive tone of the new California water plan drafted in 2009, which, as this water expert’s analysis highlights, emphasizes concepts like “giv[ing] all Californians a new direction for water decisions” and “the ways our society and culture will need to change to cope with a changing climate.” The evidence of the direction referred to here is in the artificial drought induced on behalf of the Delta smelt in the Central Valley, where billions in revenues and thousands of jobs and businesses have been lost from farming. California has mounted no serious resistance to the federal court order that shut the water off, because the political temperament of our state regulators favors the conditions that produce the drought.
The third vote is the vote for attorney general. Jerry Brown’s tenure has demonstrated the importance of the attorney general’s attitude to economic conditions in California. The Democrats’ candidate, Kamala Harris, is an environmental ideologue who would act against the financial and economic interests of California, on much the same agenda characteristic of Jerry Brown’s political history. Republican Steve Cooley is a mumbling, codgerly RINO, but he has already criticized and promised to review each of Brown’s environmental enforcement decisions from the last four years.
Conservative voters should think hard about the high cost of failing to vote for Whitman and Cooley. They are far from perfect conservative candidates, but they do exhibit resistance to an environmental agenda that justifies larger and larger increases in regulatory control over everything. Some resistance is better than none – and none is what California would get with Brown and Harris. Even if Prop 23 is approved by the voters, Brown and Harris are almost certain to continue Brown’s practice of extorting anticipatory compliance with AB32 anyway.
Two other votes that matter “big” on Tuesday are on Propositions 20 and 27. Prop 20 ensures that the state legislative districts are redrawn (based on the 2010 Census) by a non-partisan, appointed commission rather than by the legislature. Arnold Schwarzenegger got the commission approved by a previous ballot initiative, but the entrenched occupants of the statehouse in Sacramento aren’t willing to leave it at that. They fear losing their safe seats if they don’t control how the district lines are redrawn. Public-employee unions and other special interests fear the same thing. Prop 27 therefore proposes that redistricting revert to the legislature. Prop 20 affirms that it should be done by the commission. If Californians want to regain any effective citizen control over the composition of the legislature, it is imperative to vote Yes on 20 and No on 27.
The last two votes are on Propositions 25 and 26. Prop 25 eliminates the requirement for a two-thirds majority in the legislative houses to pass a state budget. It doesn’t limit what can be included in the budget, however, and the concern of opponents is that the Prop 25 loophole could be used to pass tax increases, put bond proposals on the ballot, and impose new environmental regulations on the Sacramento River Delta. These and other controversial measures can only be acted on today with two-thirds supermajorities.
Prop 26, on the other hand, proposes to extend the supermajority requirement that applies to tax increases – imposed in 1978 with Prop 13 – to the imposition of state fees. This would cut off what legislators are finding to be a fruitful avenue for avoiding fiscal and political responsibility – an avenue that imposes its burden largely through business operations, and thereby kills small businesses and jobs in the process of costing all Californians more.
I will be voting No on Prop 25 and Yes on Prop 26. All the propositions on Tuesday’s ballot are important (here are a few guides from different perspectives resonant with elements of the right wing: CA GOP, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, this independent conservative and this one). So are all the political offices we will vote on. But these seven votes are the ones that will determine whether the corpus politicus Californicus continues to bleed unstaunched, or whether we start administering treatment. As anyone who has undergone emergency first aid training knows, the first thing you have to do is stop the bleeding.