The Capitol Weekly Interview: Meg Whitman

One of the stars of this past weekend’s Republican State Convention in Sacramento was Meg Whitman. The former CEO of the online auction giant eBay announced her run for governor in 2010 as a Republican on Feb. 9. She immediately followed this with a round of talk shows and interviews. She spoke to the Capitol Weekly on Feb. 12.

[Insurance Commissioner] Steve Poizner is the only other major announced candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, and you guys seem to share a lot of similarities, being somewhat moderate and also successful in business. How do you position yourself? To the right of him? What do you do if a strong conservative enters the race, with the potential of you two splitting the moderate vote?

I think the way I’m going to approach this is with a set of priorities for the state of California. I think the most important thing that we need to do is bring more and better jobs for Californians. We need to create more jobs. We need to keep jobs from leaving, because as you know, they are leaving at an alarming rate. We’ve got to be more competitive with other states. We can’t lose any more companies, and we really can’t lose our green energy industry, which Colorado and Texas covet.

I am focused on the economy, the economy, the economy. And we’ll also focus a good deal on my attention on the K through 12 education system. As you know, we’re now 48th out of 50 states. I think we have to set ourselves a goal of becoming the number one educational system in the country, which we were 40 or 45 years ago. I have watched what has happened here in terms of California, and I refuse to let California fail. It is failing, and I’ve got to see if I can lead the way out.

What I hear you saying is you’re going to run on your business experience and financial acumen, the sort of “It’s the economy, Stupid,” model. Do you have any ideas about how you would fix the budget impasse?

I was really just incredibly stunned by the budget details that emerged this morning [Feb. 12], especially the magnitude and nature of the tax increases, and the lack of a much more aggressive approach to cost reduction in the bureaucracy. The budget deficit looks like it’s going to be balanced on the backs of small businesses and working people and working families. I was surprised by the combination of the sales tax increase, the vehicle license fee, and the gas tax. Interestingly, that 12 cents a gallon gasoline tax since removed, it’s actually a tax on going to work, and the ones who can least afford it are actually the ones who are going to get hit the worst. I think that has not been a good thing.

I think what should have been done is that, while this budget cuts services to taxpayers, it has barely trimmed the cost of the bureaucracy. I think what should have been done was doubling the state worker furloughs, looking hard at a headcount reduction across the board, salary reductions for constitutional officers. I think the bureaucracy needed to go deeper on their own account before they put it onto taxpayers.
It sounds like you would have been more on the conservative end than Schwarzenegger. How would you get Democrats to come along with that when he hasn’t been able to do so?

The first thing is, we should never be in this position, right? The reason we have a budget crisis is because there hasn’t been the long-term planning. We haven’t been preparing for an economic downturn. We spend through every dollar every year without the kind of efficiency and productivity that we demanded from families and from businesses around the state. So the fact that this was not dealt with earlier, California citizens deserve better than that.

What I would have tried to encourage here is, we’ve got to go look at our own costs before we look to the taxpayers. Here’s a really interesting thing, here’s something that might help. Companies, families, not-for-profit institutions do not have the luxury of raising money from their customers. State government is now raising money to cover its own costs from its customers, in the worst economic environment in state history. I don’t think it’s done a good job of examining its own cost structure. I understand that the Democrats don’t want to reduce headcount. I understand there is pushback to cost reduction, but that’s real life. The truth is, fundamentally, California state government has built up a cost structure that we can’t afford anymore. We can’t afford all the programs, all the bureaucracy, all the overhead. We’re going to have to be more efficient in the way we run it.

Assuming you win the nomination, how do you think your support for Proposition 8 will play in a statewide election almost two years down the road?

It wasn’t part of the calculus. I was asked how I voted on Prop. 8. I said, you know what, I voted my faith and conscience. For me personally, I felt that I needed to vote yes on Prop. 8. What I have said is that obviously I am for civil rights, I am for civil unions, give virtually all the rights and remedies to gay and lesbian couples. When I was at eBay, we have very forward-looking HR policies that created a level playing field around adoption benefits, around a whole host of areas. I voted my own personal faith and conscience, and it wasn’t part of a calculus.

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