Gavin Newsom becomes governor Monday, and in a flurry of speechmaking and pageantry, he will start laying out his priorities and plans. In his inaugural address and, later this week, in his first budget proposal, he will begin to set the tone for the next four years.
Newsom has big shoes to fill; no one knows that better than he. Jerry Brown stabilized the state’s finances and initiated policies to address long-term threats. We hope that Newsom will rely on the solid foundation laid by his predecessor to rebuild the aging architecture of government. He can do that by applying his strengths — specifically his firm grasp of policy details and his understanding of data and technology — to California’s many needs, from water sustainability and tax reform to the state’s dire housing shortage.
This should not be a stretch for the man who wrote a book in 2013 about the need to harness technology to modernize government. In “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government,” Newsom said that “government right now is functioning on the cutting edge — of 1973.” That’s perhaps hyperbolic, but he’s not wrong about the need for modernization. Just look at the Department of Motor Vehicles, whose ancient technology resulted in epic public failures in 2018 as it rolled out the Real ID program and administered the state’s new motor voter law. (Fixing the DMV should be at the top of his “to do” list if it isn’t already.)
But as Newsom (the state’s first Generation X governor) points out in the book, it’s not enough to upgrade the hardware. A true upgrade requires reimagining what government is and how it provides services.
Was that just a lot of hot air? We hope not, because California could use some serious rethinking, from its wildly unstable tax base to the outdated management of its most basic natural resources. So many of the state’s bold and once-innovative 20th century ideas — the master plan for higher education that helped build the UC system, the conveyance system that brought water to Southern California, the extensive networks of freeways that spurred economic progress through mobility — are in dire need of retooling for the 21st century.
One of Newsom’s great strengths is his grasp of public policy at the granular level. He can rattle off facts and figures on subjects both ordinary and arcane — local zoning and gas emissions as well as Medicare waivers and inverse condemnation for public utilities. An effective governor, however, not only understands how government works and what policy changes are needed, but also has the skills and savvy to implement them. That means building alliances and cutting deals. Newsom knows his stuff, but has yet to prove that he can wrangle all the various factions into line. This is the challenge he faces if he’s going to be the governor California needs.
Many signs point to an impending economic downturn in the years ahead. There’s a very good chance that there will be, if not a recession, at least an economic softening during Newsom’s first term. This means that he must continue Brown’s tradition of fiscal prudence and fend off unreasonable or unaffordable demands made by the Democratic-controlled Legislature for new spending. He must be firm despite the projected $15-billion surplus for the current fiscal year. Of course, Newsom will feel obligated to fulfill campaign promises such as the one to expand early childhood education, for which he’s already proposed $1.8 billion in new spending. But even with a healthy rainy day fund in place, he must remember that adding new ongoing expenses could mean cutbacks ahead if the economy tanks.
Also, we hope Newsom will protect recent criminal justice reforms by Brown and the Legislature, which are under attack. There is already a ballot measure qualified for 2020 that would undermine parts of Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that reclassified many nonviolent drug and theft felonies as misdemeanors, and Proposition 57, the 2016 initiative that made it easier to parole felons. And the bail industry is working to qualify a referendum on the 2018 law that ended cash bail in California.
The effects of climate change are already upon us; they will require more of the governor’s attention in the years ahead, particularly when it comes to water sustainability. The housing crisis — an enormous crisis of both availability and affordability — will require the state to weigh in on local land use and planning.