By devoting most of Tuesday’s State of the State address to denouncing Donald Trump and his policies, Gov. Jerry Brown fed rhetorical red meat to fellow Democrats.
By design or happenstance, the Trump White House fired back on Wednesday. The motormouth president announced his crackdown on illegal immigration that could have its greatest effect on California, and aides described California and New York as hotbeds of voting fraud despite a complete lack of evidence.
That immediately generated another outburst from the state’s legislative leaders, pledging implacable resistance at any cost.
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Something else happened Wednesday to round out the escalating Washington-Sacramento conflict. State Controller Betty Yee declared that the state’s unfunded liability – its debt – for retiree health care had jumped to $77 billion.
To frame the conflict simplistically and attract national attention, such as a fawning article in the current Newsweek, California politicians portray the state as a paradisiacal bastion of tolerance, economic well-being and political comity.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom posits it as “the world’s best hope for a more effective, optimistic, inclusive way forward – a nation-state antidote to the vitriol and vindictiveness that is infecting our federal politics.”
Or, as radio humorist Garrison Keillor famously described the fictional community of Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
California has many positive attributes, including a very diverse population and a powerful entrepreneurial spirit, but as Yee’s announcement implies, it also has many deep-seated, long-festering problems.
It has the nation’s highest level of poverty, caused by a shortage of housing and its sky-high costs. A third of Californians are poor enough to qualify for Medi-Cal.
It has the nation’s worst traffic congestion and second-worst pavement conditions.
It has a very shaky water supply, and its K-12 schools rank near the bottom in academic achievement.
It has ever-growing debts for public employee pensions and retiree health care. Its state budget is tenuously “balanced,” but only if one ignores those debts, and is dangerously dependent on highly volatile taxes from a few wealthy Californians.
Brown, his predecessors and legislators have occasionally swiped at these issues, but not fully addressed them. Brown has been notably willing to settle for half-a-loaf “solutions” as he seeks a second governorship legacy.
Their Trump obsession not only entices California’s politicians to overstate its virtues and minimize its shortcomings – their version of “alternative facts,” perhaps? – but diverts the political energy they demand.
Brown may yearn to assume a national or even global leadership role in anti-Trump resistance, as he has sought on climate change. But for 23 more months he’s the governor of California, and if he truly wants a legacy, he’ll spend them on issues that will hurt Californians much more than anything a buffoon in the White House will do.