Column: Newsom’s love of making firsts is on full display in his go-big-or-go-home California budget

California Gov. Gavin Newsom answers questions after delivering his revised budget proposal on May 14, 2021.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom answers questions after delivering his revised budget proposal at a news conference on May 14 in Sacramento.
(Renée C. Byer / Associated Press)

Some California political jockeying last week reminded me of a classic scene from the first Indiana Jones movie.

In 1981‘s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a scary, robed swordsman whirls his shiny machete-like weapon, preparing to duel the seemingly defenseless Indiana, played by Harrison Ford. Instead, Indiana calmly draws a pistol and drops the flashy swordsman.

Those amusing theatrics came to mind as Gov. Gavin Newsom whirled around the state unveiling one big-bucks program after another as part of his $100-billion “California Comeback Plan.”

One highlight was the governor’s proposal to send everyone earning between $30,000 and $75,000 a $600 “tax rebate.” People earning less than $30,000 already have gotten $600 from a previous state stimulus. All tax filers making less than $75,000 with a dependent would receive an extra $500.

Newsom initially said two-thirds of Californians would benefit. Later, he revised that — as he’s prone to do with many things — to “78% of tax filers.” Whatever.


Low-key former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican campaigning to replace the Democratic governor in a recall election, then mimicked Indiana Jones. He calmly pulled out a much more potent tax cut.

Faulconer hit Newsom with a proposal to permanently exempt from state income taxes the first $50,000 earned by single people and $100,000 by couples. He said that would mean tax breaks of up to $2,000 and $4,000, respectively — every year.

Faulconer said his proposal would benefit 99% of taxpayers. Only million-dollar earners would be excluded.

Newsom’s plan would cost the state general fund about $8 billion one time. Faulconer’s would leave the fund $15 billion short every year.

From a taxpayer’s perspective, Faulconer easily won that duel: A larger tax break, permanent and benefiting lots more people.

Newsom’s latest budget plan boasts more than $100 billion in unexpected revenue that can be used to tackle some of California’s most vexing problems.

It’s arguable which tax plan is better public policy. But at least these two political rivals are focusing on substantive issues.

Contrast that with perpetual Republican candidate John Cox, who recently paraded around a half-ton Kodiak bear to get attention.

Because this is real world politics, not a movie, Faulconer’s tax duel triumph didn’t draw much attention.

But the governor got lots of eyeballs with his weeklong rollout of a revised state budget proposal totaling nearly $268 billion — a whopping 33% increase over the current budget enacted in June.

Newsom won the week politically by laying out a long string of “Comeback Plan” goodies for voters who will decide his fate in the expected fall recall election.

Besides the so-called tax rebate, which is actually another stimulus spending program, the governor’s plan provides unprecedented extra money for:

Transitional kindergarten and afterschool programs; sheltering and caring for the homeless; rent payments for low-income people; Medi-Cal coverage for seniors living in the country illegally; wildfire fighting and prevention; road repairs; upgrading the power grid; expanding access to broadband; and small-business grants. The details have been covered in Times news stories.

Newsom also asked the Legislature for $1.5 billion to pick up trash.

“Clean this damn state up,” the governor demanded. “The state is too damn dirty.

Californians making $50,000 or less and families making less than $100,000 would pay no state income tax under Faulconer plan.

“Look at these [highway] overpasses, you see mattresses, all kinds of things … $1.5 billion to clean up litter, but also to beautify those same corridors…. Put in some new trees, maybe some murals.”

It’s the first time I’ve heard a governor request money for highway murals. That’s how much the state is rolling in spare cash.

Newsom basked in a week like no California governor probably has ever experienced before, certainly not in the last 60 years. He was presented with an unprecedented, gigantic budget surplus of nearly $76 billion provided by high-income taxpayers who fared unexpectedly well during the pandemic.

In addition, $27 billion in federal stimulus is headed to Sacramento to sweeten the gift fund.

Newsom’s obsession with being the “first” and the biggest was on full display all week.

In seemingly every sentence, he used some combination of “historic,” “unprecedented,” “extraordinary,” “generational” or “transformative.”

“I know it sounds like hyperbole,” the governor told an annual Sacramento conference of business interests. “Politicians always are using those words.”

Well, no, not nearly as much as Newsom:

“This is a generational budget…. This is not a budget that plays small ball…. It’s a historic budget.”

“It’s a remarkable moment in California history.”

“This is unprecedented in the history of America.”

Newsom has been traveling around California making expensive promises to voters who very likely will be deciding in a fall recall election whether to keep or toss him, columnist George Skelton writes.

“I don’t see light at the end of the tunnel. I see bright light.”

And his campaign pitch, repeated ad nauseam: “This state is roaring back…. No other state can come close.”

Can this rah-rah rhetoric backfire and become a gag-inducer?

I asked Barbara O’Connor, a retired communications professor at Cal State Sacramento and longtime political activist.

No, she answered.

“People are so tired of all this [pandemic life] and want it over. He’s a cheerleader for California and people welcome that now,” she said.

The Democrat added, “I find him obnoxious to watch as a speaker.” Why? “I’ve always thought he was kind of a pretty boy. But he has been doing what he needed to do. He has been excellent in explaining how and why he’s spending all this excess revenue.”

Newsom also got a boost last week from a major poll. A survey by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that recall opposition among registered voters has grown slightly since January to 49%. Support remains at 36%. And 52% approve of the governor’s job performance.

In California, a Republican can win a tax duel. But it’s practically impossible wearing a GOP uniform to always play Indiana Jones.