Golis: California paradox: Prosperity and an uncertain future

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By most accounts, Jerry Brown has provided a steady hand during his second time around as governor. A state reeling from shortsighted spending decisions and the revenue losses associated with the 2008 recession found new prosperity during the past eight years. Along the way, California grew to become the fifth-largest economy on earth.

Now, as voters prepare to elect Brown’s successor, the question is being asked: What happens next?

As always, there are the uncertainties associated with the arrival of a new governor. During his time, Brown served as a check on the worst spending impulses of a Democratic Legislature.

At the same time, state and local governments struggle to respond to the uncertainties associated with crippling housing prices, the widening gap between rich and poor and mounting evidence that years of economic growth are about to end.

When he introduced a new budget plan last January, Brown urged spending restraint and warned of the inevitability of an economic recession. “California has faced 10 recessions since World War II and we must prepare for the eleventh,” he said, “… Let’s not blow it now.”

Seeing the recent volatility of stock prices, we understand what he meant.

In contemplating California’s future, a series of stories in the Los Angeles Times highlighted four broad themes:

— The volatility of state budgets dependent on high-income taxpayers making lots of money, year after year after year.

— The challenges that come with natural disasters, whether fire or earthquake, mudslide or drought.

— The aging of California and the escalating costs of health care and social programs under the jurisdiction of a hodgepodge of government agencies.

— The large number of unskilled workers and the fear that their jobs will be lost to automation.

There are, of course, other no less intractable issues.

The list begins with the cost of housing — and the fear the state won’t be able to attract the skilled workers needed to sustain its economic vitality. This is a story being repeated over and over again by employers in California.

And Sonoma County is no exception. As aging baby boomers leave the workplace, employers want to know where their successors will come from and — in the midst of a housing shortage — where they will live.

In recent years, homeless encampments have become a fixture of many cities, and notwithstanding candidates’ promises, solutions have proved elusive. (One of the most glamorous cities in the country, San Francisco, has lately become the topic of news stories about how dirty it is.)

As noted here before, Sonoma County is becoming two counties in one — the first featuring homeless encampments and the second, multi-million-dollar Wine Country estates.

Education also belongs on this short list. The gap between rich and poor is growing, and kids from families with less find themselves struggling to keep up in school.

The state transportation system continues to suffer from years of neglect, and the passage of Proposition 6 on the Nov. 6 ballot, a repeal of the recent gas tax increase, would make matters worse. If you’re hoping the widening of Highway 101 through Petaluma will be completed in the foreseeable future, you better hope Proposition 6 fails.

During the coming months, a new governor also must manage the state’s responses to a Trump administration that shows no reluctance to support policies that would disadvantage the California economy. Curbs on immigration, tariffs that curtail trade with China and other Asian countries, a tax law that reduces the deductiblity of state and local taxes — they’re all bad news for people who live and work in California.

Voters these days pay less attention to state politics and to the election of a new governor, perhaps because California has become something close to a one-party state.

In the past 20 years, only two Republicans have been elected to statewide office, and both are now busy putting distance between themselves and the GOP. Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has emerged as a champion of efforts to curb climate change at a time when most Republican officeholders claim there is no such thing as climate change.

In the Nov. 6 election for governor, polls show Democratic Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom running far ahead of Republican businessman John Cox.

We are fated to live in turbulent times, which means the new governor will inherit what we might call the California paradox — an era in which unprecedented prosperity and uncertainty about the future reside side by side. Californians would be wise to pay attention, lest they be surprised by outcomes they didn’t expect and didn’t want.

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

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

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