Newsom: Politics, policy and the pandemic

Gov. Gavin Newsom at last year's Gay Rights Day parade in San Francisco. (Photo: Sheila Fitzgerald, via Shutterstock)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has been riding a high tide of approval from Californians for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but he could be heading for stormy weather.

His recent poll standing has been what politicians dream of. A June 3 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) says nearly two-thirds of Californians (65 percent of adults, 64 percent likely voters) approve of Newsom’s job performance. That is a big jump from his 53 percent approval in February.

California’s tax revenues are projected to decline more than 22 percent and the state estimates that unemployment for the year will hit  18 percent.

Californians (58 percent of  adults, 56 percent of likely voters) say that things in the state are generally going in the right direction, the PPIC reported.

“Governor Newsom is receiving high marks for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and most Californians are surprisingly upbeat about the direction of the state,” PPIC President and CEO Mark Baldassare said.

But things may not stay politically rosy for the governor in coming months.  California’s tax revenues are projected to decline more than 22 percent and the state estimates that unemployment for the year will hit  18 percent.

 That means Newsom, a Democrat, is going to have to deal with an unprecedented, pandemic-triggered state budget deficit — he pegs the deficit at $54.3 billion — that the state constitution declares must be closed before the next fiscal year starts on July 1. By law, the document must be approved in the Legislature by Monday and sent to Newsom’s desk, who will have two weeks to act on it.

Meanwhile, amid continuing protests over police misconduct, Newsom is walking a careful path: He opposes calls to defund police departments, as demanded by some protesters, and supports demands to eliminate law enforcement’s use of the carotid hold. He also came under fire for not loosening California’s shelter-in-place restrictions soon enough, then came under fire again from some who said he loosened them too soon.

The annual “May Revise” to the governor’s proposed $203 billion budget — down from the $222 billion plan he unveiled in January — contains $14 billion in spending cuts, including a 10 percent slash in state workers’ salaries and in state support for higher education. (One bright spot — the state has a record $16 billion “rainy day fund” that will be thrown into the effort to ease the fiscal crisis.) 

“Federal government, we need you,” Newsom says.

“Difficult decisions lie ahead,” Newsom said in a message accompanying the revised budget.

It’s likely most of the Democratic governor’s headaches won’t come from Republicans. They will come from various interest groups fighting to avoid drastic cuts in their state funding.

But at least so far, reaction from some major players has been less than ferocious.

The University of California, a major recipient of state money, issued a mild statement on Newsom’s proposed cuts: “The University of California recognizes the unprecedented challenges California is facing in the wake of COVID-19 and regrets that Gov. Newsom was put into a position to steeply reduce the University’s budget in response to the State’s dramatically diminished revenues. Regardless, UC stands with the governor and the Legislature to help lift the state out of this economic crisis.”

Others saw it differently.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the community college system, acknowledged that state faces a  “difficult fiscal condition,” but called on lawmakers to “support and strengthen” the colleges. The latest budget draft seeks more than $590 million in cuts to the student funding formula, in addition to other reductions. California’s community college system is the largest in the country.

The Democratic-dominated Assembly and state Senate have agreed on a spending plan that “builds on the Governor’s framework to further protect jobs and preserve vital services, while recognizing the sober economic outlook facing California,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood said in a statement.

Along with other governors, Newsom is looking pleadingly toward Washington and the Trump Administration for bailout money.

 “Federal government, we need you,” Newsom says.

If he were to win a second term in this heavily Democratic state, he would be in office until 2027, giving him a free ride for a presidential bid in 2024.

Across the state, opinion is divided on the revised budget, with 43 percent favoring (40 percent likely voters), 43 percent opposing (46 percent likely voters), and 14 percent saying they don’t know or haven’t heard anything about the budget (15 percent likely voters). Across partisan groups, 48 percent of Democrats, 31 percent of independents, and 26 percent of Republicans approve; 38 percent of Democrats, 52 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans oppose.

Although there may be a rough road ahead for Newsom in the immediate future, political junkies are already speculating what the pandemic/budget problems might mean for  Newsom beyond that.

The speculation goes like this: 

–Former Vice President Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee for president this November, and he’s said he’s going to pick a female running mate.

–Newsom’s term ends in 2023. If he were to win a second term in this heavily Democratic state, he would be in office until 2027, giving him a free ride for a presidential bid in 2024, should a President Biden, by then 81, decide not to run for a second term.

–Newsom would therefore probably be running for the Democratic nomination against whatever politically ambitious woman Biden had chosen as his vice-presidential running mate. U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren? Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer?

The handsome governor of California vs. a sitting female vice president – a political junkie’s dream.

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