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California

Chalk one up for Newsom

Capitol Journal

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom produced an economic growth plan for California on Friday that, by itself, wasn’t worth the ink used to print it. But give the man credit.

His head was exactly in the right place, focused on California’s most important issue: how we can compete with other states and nations in a sophisticated, cutthroat global economy.

Call it a jobs plan for short.

Where is Gov. Jerry Brown’s jobs plan? Where is the Legislature’s?

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California’s unemployment rate is stuck at around 12%, nearly three points higher than the national average.

Any poll will show that California voters overwhelmingly regard jobs and the economy as the state’s most important issue, dwarfing anything else, including education or taxes.

“Jerry has created a vacuum,” says Democratic consultant Chris Lehane. “The lieutenant governor has seen an opportunity and stepped into it.

“That’s significant because the people are scared and desperate for vision and leadership. They’re hungry for big ideas.”

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To be fair to Brown and Democratic leaders of the Legislature, they were narrowly focused for six months on the urgent priority of crafting a balanced state budget while closing a monstrous deficit. But that was accomplished by July 1.

Antagonists and supporters alike have been after Brown to produce a jobs program since he began running for governor early last year. But Brown is still the same unconventional maverick that he was 30-plus years ago when he first occupied the office. He abhors multi-point plans.

He resists committing himself unless the political winds are unmistakable. And he tends to ruminate rather than resolve.

Brown has tried to peddle his longtime support of renewable energy development as a jobs program. Last week, he convened 200 energy experts at UCLA to promote rooftop solar panels, small wind turbines, fuel cells and the like.

That’s an important part of the future and should be encouraged. But right now it’s still in the budding, boutique stage. And let’s face it, renewable energy isn’t about jobs as much as it is a cleaner environment and slowing down global warming.

What’s desperately needed is a comprehensive strategy to create jobs across a broad spectrum of California’s economy.

Enter Newsom, wanted or not.

“I didn’t wait around for permission,” the Democrat told me in an interview. “I didn’t wait around for the money. I raised it privately.”

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In Sacramento on this issue, he added, “there is a vacuum the likes of which I never could have imagined, so significant and ominous that it has alarmed me, not as an elected official but as a fifth- generation Californian.

“It’s stark and it contrasts with [other states] in a way that cannot be overstated. I had no idea. I am dumbfounded.”

Newsom, 43, elected lieutenant governor last November while serving as San Francisco mayor, has his own economic development credentials. He opened a wine shop and turned it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise of restaurants, bars and hotels.

Based on frustrating experience, his report calls for streamlining and simplifying government permitting procedures that can cost well into six figures and delay business operations for years.

“Nothing should take 18 months,” Newsom said. “You can be married and divorced and have two kids in 18 months. It’s just insane.”

The report offers, by Newsom’s count, “38 specific ideas.” They comprise strategies to expand state exports, reinvigorate manufacturing, promote innovation, accelerate the so-called green economy, improve education of the workforce, rebuild the infrastructure, focus on regional strengths and consolidate the clutter of duplicative government agencies dealing incoherently with economic development.

Some specifics: reestablish overseas trade offices, “rationalize the regulatory system and make it easier to navigate,” reinstate a manufacturers’ sales tax credit for equipment purchases, expand career tech education and establish a single Cabinet-level state office to deal with economic development.

In truth, the report contains a lot of apple pie stuff that lacks detailed recipes.

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And it is overripe with academic and bureaucratic lingo.

The lieutenant governor not only has virtually no power, he has a minuscule staff — just three people. So he farmed out much of the work to the Brookings Institution and McKinsey Global Institute.

But there were some salient words, especially these to open an introductory message from Newsom: “For more than 10 years, the state of California has lacked a strategic, statewide economic plan. And in the last decade we have reaped the bitter consequences.”

Ouch. That smacks three governors: Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis.

Newsom and a Brown spokesman both said that the governor’s office helped coordinate the report, released at a Silicon Valley news conference. But if the governor had any official reaction to the product, it escaped me.

By contrast, several politicians and interests, from labor to business, publicly congratulated Newsom — a kudos orchestration worthy of any gubernatorial spin machine.

Earlier this year, Brown offered business regulatory relief to Republicans as part payment for placing a tax measure on the ballot. He couldn’t sell it.

“Every time we talk about regulatory reform, it’s in the context of the budget, of appeasing the other side to get a deal,” Newsom complained. “It’s a political discussion, not a policy discussion.”

Good point. Brown — all Democrats — should grab the issue for themselves. Legislative leaders say they intend to.

“We need to change the perception that California is not business-friendly,” says Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Leaping out front on economic development showed a ton of chutzpah for a lowly lieutenant governor, especially one from the same party as the big guy.

Brown just got upstaged by a rookie backup. The governor can easily reclaim his rightful place, but only if he moves.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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