Essential Politics: The Newsom recall and California’s budget boom

Gov. Gavin Newsom
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

This is the Mar. 29, 2021 ,edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

There are two kinds of nasty state budget fights in Sacramento: those triggered by too little tax revenue to go around and the ones that break out when there’s plenty of money and everyone wants it.

The politics of scarcity played a major role in the recall election that ultimately led to the ouster of then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. The politics of surplus could have a profound effect on this year’s effort to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The politics of a $40-billion spring surprise

When Newsom sent a budget proposal to the California Legislature in January, things were already looking better than expected when last year’s spending plan was enacted — given that the COVID-19 recession has left the state’s highest-income earners largely unscathed. At the time, the governor’s advisors projected a $15-billion surplus.

Through the winter, the fortunes of state government only improved.

Most notably, the pandemic relief bill signed earlier this month by President Biden earmarked $26 billion in federal funds for Newsom and lawmakers to dole out. As of now, it appears the acceptable uses of the money could be pretty broad, as long as state officials can ensure there’s a nexus to the pandemic and that it’s not used for pension payments or new tax breaks.


And now, let’s pay homage to Ed Valenti, the TV gadget guru who’s credited with coining the phrase, “But wait! There’s more!”

Another unexpected influx of cash is in play after Newsom announced last week that general fund tax revenues are running an additional $14.3 billion ahead of projections.

“California’s improving revenue picture is another sign of the growing light at the end of the tunnel as we recover and rebuild from the pandemic,” the governor said in a written statement.

Keen-eyed budget watchers in Sacramento will note that the governor’s team and the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office have pointed out the $14.3 billion isn’t all free-to-spend cash. The rollout of the state’s $600 cash payment to low-income residents is happening more slowly than expected. And the decision to push back federal and state tax deadlines means refunds eventually owed to some Californians are still being counted as government cash.

More, too, will be diverted to public schools under California’s education funding guarantee and other monies will be required to be stashed away in reserve funds. The $40-billion surprise will undoubtedly shrink.

But how Newsom, with the blessing of majority Democrats in both houses, chooses to divvy it up could say a lot about the politics of the moment. Budget negotiations will reach their conclusion right about the time we get a look at the final tally of signatures on petitions to recall the governor in a special election.

State budget decisions played a major role in the 2003 campaign to oust Davis from office — especially the fateful decision by the embattled Democratic governor to increase the state’s vehicle license fee, derided by GOP candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger as the “car tax.” It was a powerful symbol for supporters of the 2003 recall of a state government that was out of touch with recession-weary Californians.


So what symbols might be in play this time, perhaps in Newsom’s favor? Legislative efforts on debt forgiveness for struggling Californians and a major boost to expand broadband access are being considered. There’s also the possibility that an obscure 1979 law governing government spending could trigger a small cash refund to Californians, the kind of “we know it’s your money” action that could help boost Newsom’s credibility as a responsible chief executive.

The wild rules of the recall

As elections offices in California’s 58 counties continue their review of the voter signatures submitted on Newsom recall petitions, be prepared for some fascinating story lines that could emerge if the effort — as now seems likely — makes it to the ballot.

Two items in my Monday story on the recall rules are worth highlighting. First, there’s a possibility of a speedy scramble for those wishing to run as candidates to replace Newsom, with as little as 24 hours to fill out the paperwork and pay the filing fee. (In 2003, candidates had 17 days to launch their campaigns.)

Second, interest groups and election attorneys are now huddling to determine whether as many as four high-profile ballot measures might also appear alongside a recall in a special statewide election this fall. In some cases, those groups have been eyeing the November 2022 ballot for their proposals. Getting thrown into the raucous environment of a recall could leave the fate of their proposals up in the air.

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National lightning round

— President Biden will lay out the first part of his multitrillion-dollar economic recovery package this week, focusing on rebuilding roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

— The mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia are giving new urgency to state efforts to enact gun restrictions, even while showing how hard it can be to prevent a tragedy.

— Black voters showed they matter in Georgia. Here’s how activists are trying to keep it that way.

— First Lady Jill Biden plans to visit Delano on Wednesday, the birthday of the late civil rights leader and labor organizer Cesar Chavez.

Today’s essential California politics

— First elected in 1992, Sen. Dianne Feinstein became California’s longest-serving U.S. senator on Sunday as the 87-year-old Democrat faces questions about her future in the bitterly divided Senate.

— A former employee of state Sen. Bob Archuleta is alleging that the Pico Rivera Democrat sexually harassed her and retaliated against her in a lawsuit she filed against the lawmaker, the California Senate and the state of California.

— On the same day Assemblyman Rob Bonta was nominated to become California’s next attorney general, one of his first acts was to file paperwork for a 2022 campaign to keep the job as potential challengers already begin to emerge.

— A new spotlight on Britney Spears’ conservatorship that has her legions of fans calling for reforms has prompted California lawmakers to consider changes that could affect the pop singer’s protracted legal case in Los Angeles.

— On Thursday, four months after voters rejected such a reform, the California Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to require defendants to remain behind bars simply because they cannot afford bail.

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