Flanked by members of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference last week that his decision to back a sales tax exemption on diapers and tampons was an important step forward in helping low-income families.
“We can afford to do that and it’s the right thing to do,” said Newsom, who called the tax exemption long overdue.
But the governor omitted a key detail in presenting his plan to the public and lawmakers: The tax cuts in his revised budget would last for only two years.
The revelation of a quicker-than-expected expiration date set off a kerfuffle at the state Capitol when Newsom’s full budget plan revealed the change. And it left the governor with a potential political and public relations headache — namely, that his policies might not always live up to the ideas he publicly presents.
“I don’t want to compare Newsom to Trump, but I will for just a second,” said Joseph S. Tuman, a professor of political and legal communications at San Francisco State University. “I must say this is a characterization you see in both of them, which is running to report something and make headlines before you’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.”
Newsom has faced similar criticism in his short time as governor. In January, he announced that he would withhold transportation funding from cities that don’t approve enough housing. But after pushback from lawmakers, he later said the proposal wouldn’t kick in until 2023.
A staffer for Newsom explained at the time that the governor wanted to give new money to cities to earn their support for his housing goals before implementing potential penalties.
Newsom also said in January that his budget proposal would reflect a $500-million investment in affordable housing made by Silicon Valley tech leaders to match state money he proposed for such development.
“What I did assume, and you’ll see language in the budget, is that corporate California steps up and helps us on the housing front,” he said at the time.
But when unveiling his revised budget on Thursday, Newsom said he wasn’t sure if any companies would provide money this year. He downplayed his earlier remarks and asserted that he never said the investment would be included in the new budget.
Newsom arguably generated the most confusion over his remarks in his February State of the State speech, when he spoke about the future of the state’s high-speed rail project.
The governor said he would limit an existing plan designed to build high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles, instead pledging to complete a shorter segment from Fresno to Merced. The speech elicited strong reactions from labor and other groups.
Almost immediately, the governor’s office scrambled to say he remained committed to the full project. Newsom later clarified, saying he would focus on finishing the shorter portion of the line and continue to seek funding for the full plan. He blamed the media for misconstruing his words.
Tuman said Newsom’s approach marks a sharp contrast to that of former Gov. Jerry Brown, who didn’t appear to care as much about media attention and tended to under-promise and over-deliver.
“He rarely made promises he couldn’t keep,” Tuman said.
Newsom did not disclose that the proposed tax cuts on diapers and menstrual products were temporary during the 40-minute news conference Tuesday, and his office did not initially respond to an inquiry from The Times about his remarks.
“I think the public assumed it was permanently going away,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), the author of a bill to remove a tax on menstrual products.
Garcia and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), who led the push to exempt diapers from sales tax, stood next to Newsom during the news event Tuesday and lauded his efforts. Garcia and Gonzalez said they were told that the tax elimination would be enshrined in law for five years. The state Department of Finance later confirmed the five-year timeline.
But on Thursday the administration instead unveiled details of a two-year sunset for the plan in its budget documents.
When asked to explain, Newsom asserted that he never said the law would remain in effect for five years. Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Newsom, declined to explain why lawmakers were told there would be a five-year sunset.
The Department of Finance said Friday that the two-year sunset was consistent with other measures in the governor’s revised budget but declined to comment further.
Newsom said the state’s ability to continue the tax cuts beyond 2021 depends on future economic circumstances.
“We hope to extend it, but we hope to be in a fiscal position to do so and we want to maintain our prudence,” he said on Thursday. “We want to maintain a balanced structural budget.”
Gonzalez pushed back on the idea that economic factors should dictate whether the tax cut continues.
“If times are bad, that means they’re bad for regular folks and that means the cost of diapers become even more exorbitant when you’re facing hard times,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not like the state faces hard times on its own without our populace facing it.”
Eliminating taxes on diapers and menstrual products would cost roughly $76 million annually, according to the Department of Finance.
Garcia and Gonzalez included five-year sunsets in their current bills because of standing legislative guidelines that require any new tax exemption to include an end date.
Reducing the sunset to two years would make the proposals weaker than bills the Legislature approved and Brown vetoed in prior years.
Both Garcia and Gonzalez said they were appreciative of Newsom’s desire to cut the taxes, after years of their own failed attempts and what Garcia described as Brown’s refusal to engage on the topic. They said they plan to continue to lobby the governor and their fellow lawmakers to permanently eliminate the sales taxes.
“If the budget is a reflection of our values, it should be a reflection of our permanent values and not a temporary one,” Garcia said.
Times staff writer Liam Dillon contributed to this report.
Follow @tarynluna on Twitter.