The new state budget now being crafted behind closed doors by Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders exemplifies a basic factor in all political policymaking — the tension between the present and the future.
While those who seek public office often depict themselves as forward-looking visionaries, politics is essentially a short-range business, preoccupied with demands from constituents and interest groups to deal with present-day issues.
Budgets encapsulate the conflict between now and then, especially when economic circumstances provide more current revenue than needed to finance existing services and programs.
Advocates for new spending increase their pressure for slices of the enlarged pie — arguing, of course, that spending more now will pay dividends in the future. Meanwhile, fiscal watchdogs urge caution about building baseline commitments that could backfire and urge building reserves to cushion future downturns.
When he introduced his revised 2021-22 budget in May, Newsom bragged of a $100 billion surplus, whetting the appetites of the spending advocates. The real discretionary surplus is much lower because of mandatory diversions for public schools, but the Legislature’s spending-oriented budget assumes that future revenues will be higher than the governor’s projections.
Oddly, the higher revenue estimates come from the Legislature’s budget analyst, Gabe Petek, who also told lawmakers that they should set aside more money in “rainy day” reserves to offset future declines.
The political tension between the present and the future is not confined to budgets, as illustrated by several other current issues, two being the state’s housing crisis and the ever-present danger of wildfire catastrophes.
After several years of devastating wildfires, Newsom has pledged to spend more on making the state more prepared and more resilient. Last year, however, he vetoed a bill aimed at discouraging housing in the “wildland-urban interface” where fires are most likely, or at least imposing new resilience standards on construction within those zones.
“Wildfire resilience must become a more consistent part of land use and development decisions,” Newsom wrote in vetoing Senate Bill 182. “However, it must be done while meeting our housing needs.”
It was a classic political straddle, and one of several that Newsom has employed to bridge the gap between current political pressures and promises of a brighter future.
Two others involve his pledge to wean California from fossil fuels as the state’s contribution to the war on climate change, which he and others depict as an existential crisis.
Taking him at his word, environmental activists have been pressing Newsom to ban fracking, the technique for extracting more oil from underground deposits, as a step toward shutting down the state’s considerable oil industry.
Newsom has taken some symbolic steps in that direction but has also asked the Legislature to pass an anti-fracking bill, no doubt aware that countervailing pressure from the oil industry and unions that represent workers in oil fields and refineries makes such legislation highly unlikely.
Meanwhile, Newsom has also pledged to electrify and decarbonize California with millions of new battery-powered vehicles and a total conversion of its power supply from natural gas-fired generators to nonpolluting wind and solar.
However, as heat waves overwhelmed California’s power grid last summer, forcing some brief blackouts, Newsom quickly declared that he would not tolerate any repeats and his Public Utilities Commission ordered utilities to acquire more backup supplies, some being battery banks but others being gas-powered plants.
Clearly, the governor fears the political fallout from repeat blackouts, even if avoiding them means relying more on the gas-fired generators he considers to be environmental villains.
Politics being what they are, the future often plays second fiddle to the present.
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