“Resurgent state” screamed the Daily Journal’s headline after last week’s State of the State address by Gov. Jerry Brown. Even the staid Economist magazine titled its analysis of the speech “California’s Comeback.” To be sure, it’s party time here in Silicon Valley. San Mateo County’s unemployment rate is 4.6 percent, second lowest in the state (after Marin) and it’s significantly lower than the national average.
However, calling the entire state resurgent or claiming a comeback is putting a happy face on pile of problems, most of which the governor simply ignored. Jerry Brown set the comeback bar awfully low, and the mainstream media was only too happy to oblige.
Let’s start with the unemployment rate. Yes, it’s down from its peak, but at 8.3 percent in December (latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), we’re still the third worst state in the union. Alternatively, our unemployment rate is 24 percent higher than the national average. A million and a half Californians are looking for work, with the millions more who depend on them deprived of a household income. Significantly, more than 22 percent of the workforce in the El Centro area is unemployed as is 20 percent in Colusa County and 14 percent in Sutter County.
Not only that, but adding back in discouraged and marginally attached workers (those who have given up completely looking for work) we find that the BLS estimates that almost 18 percent of Californians are out of work. This is shameful. Resurgent it is not.
Sky-high unemployment rates coupled with high living costs (especially rent) have given California the highest poverty rate in the country, almost one-fourth of our citizens (23.8 percent) are living in poverty. As reported by the International Business Times, 38 million of our people live below the poverty line, including one third of all Latinos. This rate exceeds that of Louisiana and Mississippi. Even in San Mateo County, 7.2 percent of our neighbors suffer in the grip of poverty’s deprivations. This is shameful. Resurgent it is not.
I noted last week that California schools’ academic achievement in grades K-12 rate a D+ grade in the recently released Education Week 2014 Quality Counts report. Overall, 31 states rate better, including Georgia, Texas and New Jersey. In California, fewer than 33 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in mathematics and just over a quarter are proficient in reading. The scores for fourth-grades are just as dismal, with slightly more than 32 percent proficient in math and not quite 27 percent proficient in reading. Again, resurgent it is not.
Turning to the budget, the centerpiece of the governor’s address, we find similar issues. The governor took credit for an operating budget that shows a surplus. Yet this operating surplus was only achieved through the imposition of that nation’s highest marginal tax rate at 13.3 percent and increased capital gains taxes. Should markets falter this year (as they’ve done recently), state spending could easily fall back into the red. Yet, no mention was made of this reliance on highly volatile and highly uncertain income in creation of the operating surplus.
To his credit, the governor did mention the looming long-term debt crisis that exists behind the so-called Wall of Debt (short-term borrowing that papered over deficits during the last several years). Nevertheless, mentioning is not the same as confronting, and his budget doesn’t do that.
Just this week, the California state teachers retirement system (CalSTRS) reiterated that it will go broke in 30 years without substantial funding changes. Every day changes are not implemented means that the costs to fix the system increase by $22 million. The amount of unfunded liabilities owed to teachers by you and your family has grown to more than $70 billion and gets larger by the day. Gov. Brown’s budget conveniently ignores this reality.
Further, the early release of tens of thousands of prisoners, a slow train to nowhere costing at least $80 billion, and billions more for massive new tunnels diverting Delta water to Southern California all add up to enormous future public safety, budgetary and ecological problems that belie any grand resurgence, no matter how the governor waxed poetic over his meager accomplishments.
Jerry Brown claims a California comeback. In the ’70s, such nonsense earned him the title Moonbeam. Now, given his real record and lack of accomplishments, he’s earned himself a new moniker, “Low Bar Brown.”
John McDowell is a longtime county resident having first moved to San Carlos in 1963. In the intervening years, he has worked as a political volunteer and staff member in local, state and federal government, including time spent as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush administration.