Golis: Will a resurgent California make the right choices?

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In Donald Trump’s America, people keep hoping for the day that California falls on its face.

The state’s support of immigrants, its dedication to environmental protection, its embrace of free trade, its belief in its own importance on the world stage — folks in places such as Kansas and Alabama can cite chapter and verse about what they don’t like about those snotty Californians.

Did you read the news that California has become home to the fifth-largest economy on earth?

Sorry, Kansas. Sorry, Alabama. The California economy continues to grow while others languish. Since 2010, the Golden State produced 20 percent of the economic growth in the U.S., the New York Times reported. Between 2016 and 2017, the state’s gross domestic product grew by $127 billion (to $2.7 trillion).

Critics like to say that California’s approach to governance is bad for business. So how come California is home to the fifth-largest economy on earth and 49 others states are not?

In technology, entertainment and agriculture, California remains an economic juggernaut. Only the U.S., China, Japan and Germany now have larger economies.

This new success comes after a time in which California appeared to be faltering. As politicians made bad choices and real estate markets cratered, it looked like the Golden State was going to get its comeuppance. By 2010, state government was confronted by a $27 billion budget deficit, and comparisons were made to other states and other countries that had borrowed themselves into the poor house.

Then a funny thing happened. California was resurgent. In the latest projection of tax revenues — the so-called May revise — California finds itself with a budget surplus of nearly $9 billion.

So, we should celebrate, right?

Not really. As California prepares for the June primary election, hard choices remain.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to become distracted by a president who has a way of taking up all the air in the room. This is a president who has turned belligerence and deception into an art form.

California will continue to fight back against a Trump administration that wants to persecute immigrants, ignore the science of climate change and make it more difficult to sell California products around the world.

But California v. Trump cannot become an excuse for ducking home-grown issues that can only be resolved here in California.

There’s no secret about what California needs to do. The list includes:

— Housing. It’s unconscionable what has happened to rents and home prices. Without reducing barriers to new home construction, this crisis will drain the vitality of every community where people can’t find or afford a place to live.

— Poverty. In a state with so much wealth, the growing rates of poverty threaten to become California’s shame. We did not grow into the fifth largest economy on earth to welcome a new Gilded Age.

— Streets and highways. You can’t drive down the street or across town without seeing the proof that the state’s transportation system is suffering from years of neglect.

— Climate change. No one who lives in Sonoma County should need to be reminded that extreme weather patterns are changing the landscape.

— Rainy-day reserves. No one who has lived through the last year can doubt the need for a rainy-day fund to be used when the next disaster comes along.

These are California’s problems to solve, but will the state’s political leadership be up to the task?

What the past suggests is that when there’s extra money laying about, politicians sometimes value short-term political gains over long-term outcomes. The ongoing (and ominous) shortfall in government retirement funds speaks to elected leaders’ eagerness to please their core constituents now and worry about the consequences later.

In a healthy democracy, a two-party system would provide for balanced and thoughtful solutions. But the Republican Party in California has managed to take itself out of the game. There are now almost as many voters who express no party preference as there are registered Republicans in California, mostly because of the official party’s unpopular views.

Thus, it falls to elected Democrats to check their short-term political impulses.

Economies rise and fall. Surpluses come and surpluses go. But California’s long-term challenges remain.

Fifteen years ago, the state Legislature acted as if every year would bring a new budget surplus. Over-spending and budget deficits followed.

Here’s hoping this was a lesson learned.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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