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September 26, 2013
Guest Opinion: Has state prospered since Brown took office?

California_Governor_Jerry_Brown.jpg

(Sept. 26 -- By Bill Whalen, Special to The Bee)

Ever since Ronald Reagan popularized the phrase in the 1980 presidential election, incumbents have lived or died by the notion of voters feeling better or worse than the last time they cast a ballot.

California is no exception to the rule, and the 2014 governor's race apparently is no exception to the exception. Gov. Jerry Brown will make the case that (a) he rescued state government from the brink of fiscal collapse and (b) under his watch, California has gone from recession to recovery.

Technically, Brown's right. Three years into his administration, new jobs are being added, though the pace is slowing per the latest UCLA Anderson Forecast. State unemployment has fallen since Brown took office - 12 percent in February 2011 versus 8.9 percent in August 2013 - though that latter number has ticked up 0.2 percentage points from July. However, it's a shallow recovery - per capita real GDP growth of 2.5 percent in 2011-12, compared to 3.7 percent growth three years after the dot-com bubble's burst in the previous decade.

Then the question, assuming Brown does go with the "better off" theme next year (and why wouldn't he?), is whether an opponent can punch a hole in the argument. According to the most recent Hoover Golden State Poll, a survey of 1,000 Californians done in conjunction with the Internet polling firm YouGuv and released earlier this week, such an opening may exist.

The first message component: Californians' inner angst.

Hoover's survey found that twice as many Californians (33 percent to 17 percent) reported being financially worse off than better off in the past year, with 47 percent saying things were pretty much the same. So much for "happy days are here again." Despite Brown's and Proposition 30's campaign promise of a temporary tax increase to steady the state's finances, 74 percent of Californians believe state taxes will increase either a little or a lot over the next three years. Just 15 percent of Californians think their taxes will remain the same, while 2 percent believe taxes will decrease.

Fifty-one percent of the poll's respondents reported being somewhat unconfident or not at all confident in their ability to meet their expenses, should their taxes go up. Thus the possibility of a voter dialogue over why they're not getting ahead - and what the state plans to do to stay ahead (i.e., pick your pocket).

The second half of the Golden State Poll delved into energy topics, including climate change and hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking") - a practice that got the green light last week from Brown, when he signed SB4 into law creating a regulatory and permit framework for California fracking.

Again, there's an opening for Brown's challengers - that is, if they take the time to think it over and come up with a more nuanced message than most conservatives offer these days.

And that message would go something like this: First, leave the climate-denying talk to disaffected talk-radio hosts. Golden State Poll respondents said climate change is, in general, a very or somewhat serious problem; only 32 percent expressed some level of doubt. Among Republicans, 36 percent called it a problem, suggesting there's better red meat to serve to the party faithful.

Second, frame climate change in terms of spending priorities. AB32 will rake in anywhere from $14 billion to $70 billion in revenue over the next eight years, with Brown wanting to park the "green" green in high-speed rail (apparently, visions of carbon credits, not sugar plums, dance in this governor's head). The Golden State Poll showed that's counter to the wishes of Californians, of whom only 7 percent give top priority to high-speed rail, while six times more preferred that AB32 revenues be refunded to taxpayers.

The survey offered one more insight for 2014 hopefuls. It's one part recent policy, one part recent history lesson. But, as far as being a good political sell, it's an uphill climb.

Earlier this month, Australia's conservative opposition returned to power by tapping into an electorate soured by a much-despised tax on carbon emissions (with a little help from a Liberal-National Coalition that played into voters' fears about government debt and borrowing by proposing $19.8 billion in spending promises to only $2.4 billion by the conservative opposition).

Where California differs from Oz - for now, at least - is that energy isn't a source of shared misery and concentrated outrage that can spell trouble at the polls for incumbents. The last time this happened in California was the 2003 recall election - two years after the rolling blackouts and electricity price shocks that laid the groundwork for Gov. Gray Davis' political demise.

Indeed, the Golden State Poll shows that sounding an alarm on energy might fall on deaf ears: More half of the survey's respondents expect AB 32 to have little effect on the price of a gallon of gasoline; few believe their electricity bills will go through the roof.

One wonders how voters will react if, it turns out, AB 32 has a negative impact on Californians' pocketbooks and lifestyles. Could climate change wind up being the Republicans' ticket to change in Sacramento?

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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