To no one’s surprise, Gov. Gavin Newsom dominated Tuesday’s early election results, landing him in a runoff in November against little-known, lightly funded Republican candidate Brian Dahle, a state senator from rural Northern California. The former San Francisco mayor is well on his way to being the latest incumbent California governor to easily win re-election. But unlike the last two, Newsom doesn’t have a signature accomplishment in office. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger easily held onto the seat in 2006 after working with Democratic lawmakers to achieve the most productive session of the Legislature in years — most memorably enacting the state’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown also easily won another term in 2014 after a bravura display of tough fiscal management that obliterated the trope that California was “ungovernable.”
By contrast, despite record revenue and heavy Democratic majorities in Sacramento, Newsom has made little to no progress on key, high-profile state issues. He governs as an incrementalist without a broad, bold vision of how the Golden State should respond to its problems. This must change.
On housing and the intertwined issue of homelessness, Newsom has never come close to meeting the goals he set out in 2018 of adding 500,000 new housing units a year. Despite sweeping new laws that make it far easier to add homes on existing single-family lots, California doesn’t even build a third that many units. Meanwhile, the cost of shelter keeps hitting new record highs, impoverishing middle-income families. And despite unprecedented infusions of billions of dollars in new state funds to homelessness programs, problems are getting worse in most cities, including in San Diego.
So what can a governor do? Change the basics of the debate. Make bold changes to allow for the easy conversion of empty malls and office buildings into housing, recognizing that both online shopping and the number of those who work from home are only going to increase. Use tax incentives to get developers to build huge dormitory-style residential buildings with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Embrace factory-built homes that can go up for a fraction of the usual cost. But above all, don’t treat “process” victories — new laws and regulatory changes — as actual victories. Demand results.
On education, Newsom keeps breaking records on how much funding his budgets provide K-12 classrooms. But just as many education experts have said for years, school quality is not only a function of school spending. The persistent achievement gap leaving many Black and Latino students behind got even worse when classrooms closed during the pandemic. Yet instead of turning to what has worked in diverse, highly populated liberal states like Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — carefully measuring student and teacher performance and developing rigorous best practices — California has made it even harder to use such tools. The state must measure how it is spending that money.
On water, with the governor’s call to reduce water consumption going largely unheeded, the climate emergency has made it necessary for state leaders to consider taking the momentous step of putting limits on use by farms, which consume four times as much of the state’s available water as cities (40 percent versus 10 percent). Agriculture is now only about 2 percent of the state’s economy. In a historic drought like this, prudent limits on water use for heavily exported crops like alfalfa and almonds make sense. Many other reforms to limit the wasting of water and to add reservoirs make sense. But none can provide the relief in the short term that would come from a new approach to agriculture.
Newsom was elected in 2018 talking about big, hairy audacious goals. It’s time for achievements. He defends his record with a vigor that belies how difficult life is for many Californians. But if he wants to go down in history, he must change his cautious ways and walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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