The jury’s still out on Newsom as California governor — but he did OK his first year
One question invariably asked over lunch around the state Capitol is: “How do you think Newsom is doing?” And the answer almost always is: “The jury’s still out.”
When pressed, the consensus seems to be: “He’s doing OK, but not great.”
Then there’s usually this observation: How could Gov. Gavin Newsom not be doing at least OK? No governor in modern times has entered the office with so many advantages.
The treasury is overflowing with tax revenue, his Democratic Party holds supermajorities in each legislative house, and there are plenty of jobs for voters. The unemployment rate is down around 4%.
And unlike governors before Jerry Brown, Newsom doesn’t need to wage summer-long budget brawls with the Legislature. Lawmakers can pass a budget with a simple majority vote rather than the agonizing two-thirds of old.
In truth, Newsom probably is doing a little better than most people think. It just isn’t noticed that much.
That’s partly because, unlike Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger before him, Newsom isn’t all that stimulating or exciting, even if he is telegenic. But in larger part, it’s because President Trump draws most of the public’s political attention. And what’s left goes to the Democratic presidential candidates.
We’ve reached an important measuring point for Newsom, however: the end of the legislative year. It was his first experience dealing with the lawmakers.
How’d he do? For an answer, it helps to go back and reread his inaugural and State of the State speeches and note the agenda he laid out for himself. Then compare it with what he achieved through the Legislature.
Here are a few agenda items that can be assessed:
“California should never be a place where only the well-off can lead a good life,” the new governor said. “It starts with housing, perhaps our most overwhelming challenge right now…. If we want a California for all, we have to build housing for all.”
If anything, the problem has gotten worse because home builders are constructing fewer units this year than last. While campaigning for governor, Newsom talked about building 3.5 million new homes by 2025. That isn’t happening.
Newsom and the Legislature budgeted $1.75 billion to help local governments boost housing production. That’s a carrot. There’s also a stick — lawsuits to be filed against local governments dragging their feet on new home construction.
One obstacle to home building has long been abuse of the California Environmental Quality Act, especially by not-in-my-backyard NIMBYs. They and other opponents of projects block them with oft-frivolous lawsuits.
“In recent years we’ve expedited … CEQA for professional sports,” Newsom said. “It’s time we do the same for housing.”
But again, nothing was done about CEQA for housing, except to speed up building some homeless shelters. Unions oppose reform because they use threats of environmental lawsuits to “greenmail” developers for labor concessions.
Neither did Newsom weigh in on a landmark bill to force high-density housing on local governments. It would have required cities to permit mid-rise apartment complexes near rail stations and major job centers. It died without gubernatorial support.
For renters, Newsom and the Legislature teamed up to pass a reasonable anti-gouging bill. It will cap annual rent increases at 5% plus inflation. Apartments built in the last 15 years and most single-family homes won’t be affected. Also, tenants will be protected from being evicted without cause.
Moments after being sworn in, Newsom lamented “a homeless epidemic that should keep each and every one of us up at night.”
Well, there are roughly 90,000 unsheltered homeless people sleeping on the streets in California, including about 59,000 in Los Angeles County. In all, there are an estimated 130,000 homeless people in the state.
Newsom and the Legislature budgeted $1 billion to fight the problem, including $650 million for local governments to build emergency shelters and $265 million for mental health support.
And, hey, Trump is going to help us, right?
“We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco … destroy themselves,” the president said Tuesday. But he didn’t have a plan.
“We need clear and achievable standards of transparency … and accountability for all public schools — traditional and charter,” Newsom said.
To his credit, Newsom brokered a legislative compromise between long-warring charter and traditional schools. It gives school districts more authority to reject petitions for new charter campuses. And it imposes stricter credentialing requirements on charter teachers.
Newsom campaigned on enacting “single-payer” — government-only — health insurance. But he backed way off that as governor.
He and the Legislature, however, expanded Medi-Cal insurance for the poor by offering it to young adults up to age 26, including immigrants living here illegally. Subsidies were also provided to middle-class families so they can buy medical insurance.
“Working people deserve fair pay, the right to join a union…. We will shape the future of work.”
Newsom and the Legislature came through for organized labor with a bill reclassifying 1 million workers as company employees rather than independent contractors. That enshrines in law a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling. Employees will be eligible for new benefits — and union membership.
But many workers — independent truckers, psychotherapists among them — will try to obtain exemptions from the new law next year. And they should get them.
“We will be prudent stewards of taxpayer dollars, pay down debt,” Newsom promised, “and we will build and safeguard the largest fiscal reserve of any state in American history.”
Promise kept. One could quibble. But as the old cliche goes, it was close enough for government work — particularly with a leftist Legislature.
Newsom’s overall grade so far: B-minus.
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