California Gov. Gavin Newsom is ambitious. He has cultivated the air of someone who looks into the mirror and sees a president staring back. And when Newsom looks out a window, he sees a state that will serve as his vehicle on the road to the White House. It’s a curious illusion.
His state’s critics, by contrast, see a basket case characterized by the spectacular mismanagement of the state’s vast resources, Dickensian levels of social stratification, and a population that cannot flee fast enough from one of the most hospitable climates on earth. Newsom’s fantasies notwithstanding, California never fails for long to remind its critics why they’re right.
At the beginning of this year, Sacramento believed it had stumbled into a miracle. The notoriously profligate state was expected to enjoy a windfall $45 billion budget surplus. In early spring, budgetary projections had grown even rosier. The state, it was believed, might have been sitting on as much as $68 billion in unallocated revenue by the end of the year. But even that estimate proved conservative. By May, it was assumed that California would have a surplus of around $97 billion. And as California Democrats are wont to do, they went about spending that money as fast as possible.
The governor had many priorities. California would become the first state in the nation to guarantee “universal access to health coverage” regardless of age or citizenship. It would delay a gas-tax increase. It would sink hundreds of millions of dollars into programs designed to mitigate the effects of climate change, modernize forestry management, and alleviate drought. These inexplicable sums would support police forces and mental-health housing services in a belated effort to clean up the streets. And the state would, at long last, bring high-speed rail services to California commuters.
California acted fast. In June, the legislature passed, and Newsom signed a $308 billion budget. It included a substantial tax refund for state residents, universal healthcare coverage, the establishment of a domestic insulin production capacity, investments in an “oil-free future,” a program of “encampment resolutions” (which is exactly what it tries to sound like it’s not), tens of billions for infrastructure, aid to children struggling with the post-pandemic “learning-recovery” process, and “inflation relief” in the form of subsidies that increase the consumer demand that fuels inflation in the first place.
It was a lovely interlude. This week, Californians learned that those happy projections were off the mark by $122 billion. Yes, one hundred and twenty-two billion dollars. California does not have a budget surplus at all but a deficit to the tune of $25 billion. What’s more, the Golden State’s penury is, according to analysts, an outgrowth of inflation and the Federal Reserve’s efforts to tame consumer demand. In other words, this was perfectly foreseeable months ago. The road ahead will involve painful spending cuts and raids on the state’s rainy-day funds.
Worry not, though. California’s elected leaders have learned precisely zero lessons from this debacle. “Thanks to our responsible approach,” said California Senate President Pro Temp Toni Atkins in the wake of this catastrophic budgetary projection, her state to “continue where we left off once our economy and revenues rebound.”
One of the ways California and its governor squandered the windfall it never had in the first place was to embark this summer on a public-relations campaign for the state that doubled as a political platform from which Newsom could prosecute the Democratic Party’s political fights. Newsom’s message was bizarrely negative insofar as his pitch for himself and his state consisted primarily of establishing a favorable contrast with Florida and its governor. Florida doesn’t privilege liberty as Gov. Ron DeSantis insists, Newsom claimed. Not like California, where “freedom of speech, freedom to choose freedom from hate, and the freedom to love” are privileged. “Don’t let them take your freedom,” Newsom said.
The California governor’s focus on the culture wars, where DeSantis has a mixed record, sidesteps Florida’s foremost point of pride, which is also California’s fatal flaw: the banalities of good governance. As David Harsanyi unimpeachably observed, “hundreds of thousands of people flock to Florida (and Texas and Arizona) to enjoy an inviting regulatory environment, low taxes, and relative freedom—not to watch the governor teach Disney a lesson.” Likewise, Californians are not fleeing California because they are secret pro-lifers or hostile to same-sex marriage. They’re leaving, perhaps reluctantly, in response to maladministration. The level of political dysfunction in Sacramento is so monumental that the French-owned railroad firm contracted to build a high-speed rail line from L.A. to San Francisco abandoned the state this year for what it insisted was the more competent and business-friendly environment in North Africa.
Newsom may still be set on giving America a choice between the competing models exemplified by California and Florida, and Americans should hope he is. Maybe Americans will choose rolling blackouts, cities devoured by an archipelago of vagrant bivouacs, and seasonal infernos as a byproduct of “environmental permitting requirements” because Republicans are disinclined to support late-term abortions. But I doubt it.