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Voters deserve a gubernatorial debate that goes beyond platitudes

PoliticsColumnElectionsJerry BrownBusinessEnvironmental Politics
We can always dream of a debate that produces more than platitudes and poll-driven talking points
Debate is last real chance to hear directly from Gov. Jerry Brown, who's expected to win a record fourth term

California voters' best chance of hearing anything substantive from Gov. Jerry Brown about his plans for a final term will come next week in a televised debate.

Maybe he doesn't have a clue. Maybe he has only a few vague notions, which I suspect. Or maybe he doesn't dare say.

We can always dream, however, of a debate that produces more than platitudes and poll-driven talking points.

We can hope for an informative discussion between Brown and his underdog reelection rival, Republican former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, about pressing state problems a governor should try to resolve in the next four years.

Because, barring the unforeseen, this will be it: the last real opportunity to hear directly from the career pol who's practically a cinch to win a record fourth term Nov. 4.

And, of course, it probably also will be the only time that most voters pay much attention to the political rookie Kashkari. So if the onetime bank bailout czar is to ever make a case for extending his political life and running again for statewide office, he'd better do it during next Thursday night's debate.

The debate, sponsored by The Times, KQED public radio, Telemundo and the California Channel, is the only one that Brown has agreed to participate in. That's the cautious, predictable strategy of a candidate expecting to be a landslide winner. He doesn't need to risk stumbling in a showdown with a little-known opponent.

Never mind that if Presidents Obama and Reagan had adopted that same strategy, they might not have been reelected after blundering in their first debates.

Brown is somewhat protected, however. The 7 p.m. debate time coincides with the first Thursday night regular season NFL game, a matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers that's certain to draw millions of TV viewers.

Anyway, for those of us who do plan to watch the politicians — or at least record their contest — here are some major topics I'd like to hear addressed by them, particularly Brown:

• Tax reform. This state's tax system is probably the most unstable in the country. It's mainly why the state's budget choked on red ink during the recession.

But Brown has shied away from the heavy lifting needed to fix it. His lone effort was to raise income taxes on the very rich, which aggravated the instability.

Sacramento leans too hard on the rich, whose incomes surge or plummet during boom or bust times. In 2012, the wealthiest 1% paid nearly 51% of the state income tax.

Brown is trying to treat the symptom with a November ballot proposal, Proposition 2, which would hoard revenue spikes in a so-called rainy-day reserve to be tapped in hard times.

What we should be doing is curing the disease by stabilizing the tax system and eliminating the volatility. Broaden the tax base and bank less on the rich, who, after all, can move out of California. At the same time, we should extend the sales tax to services, like wiser states have done.

And as part of reform, we should finally tweak Prop. 13 after 36 years — not in ways that hurt homeowners, but to collect a fairer share of property taxes from big businesses.

It would be nice to hear Brown's views.

• Environmental regulation. The California Environmental Quality Act needs some streamlining, but that means bucking labor, the cash cow of Democratic election campaigns.

Nationally, the act has earned California a reputation for being anti-business. Too often, the law isn't used for environmental protection at all. It's the tool of lawsuit-threatening labor groups attempting to force unionization or business rivals trying to block competition.

Brown has talked about the need for reform but has done little to achieve it. Perhaps in a final term?

• Water. Will California continue relying on the same old massively expensive, environmentally destructive public works projects that Brown's father — Gov. Pat Brown — built half a century ago? Or will we move toward improved technology and better use of existing local water through desalination, recycling, storm water capture and aquifer regulation?

A $7.5-billion water bond proposal on the November ballot, Prop. 1, is a good start. It emphasizes not only new storage but also development of local water sources. Brown exhibited leadership in pushing the compromise bond measure through the Legislature.

But the governor is also attempting to drill two behemoth, very costly tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to divert fresh water south. He'd be draining fresh water from Delta farmers and endangered salmon and shipping it into arid San Joaquin Valley almond and pistachio orchards.

There must be a better, fairer way.

• Bullet train. One simple question: OK, high-speed rail might be groovy, and Asian and European nations have it. But we're a state. How does Brown plan to pay the $68-billion cost without much federal help and only $9 billion approved by California voters? No private investors have offered.

Brown's only answer so far is that cap-and-trade pollution fees will provide a new revenue stream to help finance construction bonds. But the fees also will raise gasoline prices.

• Marijuana legalization, Internet poker, teacher tenure, unaffordable universities, political corruption (legal and illegal), public pensions.

Add those to the list of topics we should hear any gubernatorial candidate enlighten us on.

The televised debate will be the one time that the governor can dodge, but he can't hide. He must stand there; can't be dragged off by his handlers.

Regardless of how the debate turns out, it's bound to be more illuminating than the predictable, dreaded barrage of fall TV ads.

george.skelton@latimes.com
Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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PoliticsColumnElectionsJerry BrownBusinessEnvironmental Politics
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