When Neel Kashkari told conservative talk radio listeners in Los Angeles this week that he would not immediately move to lower taxes on the wealthiest Californians, he suggested his campaign for governor will diverge from a tax-cutting theme Republicans have pressed hard in recent years.
The position is strategic, not ideological. Voters in this Democratic state overwhelmingly approved a tax increase in 2012, and Kashkari — outflanked by a more conservative candidate, Tim Donnelly, on the right — will likely need support from independent voters to advance from the June primary election to a runoff against Gov. Jerry Brown in the fall.
On the "John and Ken" show Thursday, Kashkari assured his hosts that he believes "our taxes are too high" and wants to "get everyone to the table" to discuss them. But he said, "I don't think, politically, that's where we start."
Instead, Kashkari is embracing another, equally reliable conservative stand-by. One week into his campaign, Kashkari — like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Meg Whitman before him — is going after budgetary waste.
"To me, I think it's critical that we start getting our money's worth for the taxes that we're collecting," Kashkari said. "We spend more than $40 billion a year on K-12, and only about half of that money is actually getting into the classroom. Half of it is being spent on administration and overhead and other things."
That should sound familiar. In the Republican gubernatorial primary four years ago, Steve Poizner promised to fix a public education system "that wastes a lot of money," while Whitman planned to devote more funds to classroom teaching and less to "bureaucracy." Whitman proposed eliminating "waste, fraud and abuse" statewide, as did Schwarzenegger, the last Republican to occupy the governor's office. Experts said the amount of fat in the budget was overstated, and seven years after he took office, Schwarzenegger left Sacramento with a deficit.
Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, has not put a number on the overall budget savings he believes he could find. But education is a focus of his campaign, and on that subject Kashkari went to his radio interview prepared. The basis for Kashkari's claim that classrooms are being shortchanged is a 2011 study that found direct spending in California classrooms declined from 59 percent to less than 58 percent of total expenditures from 2003 to 2009, even as total education spending increased.
The report, by Pepperdine University, is questionable for what it counted as "direct classroom expenditures." It included teacher salaries and estimated benefits, textbooks and materials and supplies, but not the cost of library or cafeteria workers, busing and building maintenance.
The report, produced with funding from the conservative Small Business Action Committee, stirred controversy when it was released several years ago. Now the study - or some version of it - is likely to feature prominently in Kashkari's campaign. If he can persuade voters that education money could be redirected from the bureaucracy to classrooms, he could propose any number of programs without needing to identify additional funding.
Kashkari has not released any detailed policy proposals, but on Thursday he expressed interest in vocational training and a longer school year, and he praised ideas advocated by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Since leaving office, the former governor has been promoting his "Florida formula" for public education that includes assigning letter grades to schools while emphasizing vouchers, online instruction and reading tests that third graders must pass before being promoted.
Experts have debated the influence of these polices on student achievement in Florida, but Kashkari is inspired.
"They brought more choice to parents, they brought more power into parents, they provided more accountability," Kashkari said. "This is not rocket science."
PHOTO: Neel Kashkari speaks at an interview with The Associated Press in Sacramento on Dec. 4, 2013. AP Photo/ Rich Pedroncelli