Every once in awhile, California gets a major public official who thrives on telling the unvarnished truth. In recent history, these have usually held the office of state treasurer, a low-visibility post that can give its occupant plenty of time to ruminate.
First in this line in the modern era was Jesse Unruh, for whom a political studies institute at USC is now named. Unruh, the ultimate politician during his 1960s tenure as speaker of the state Assembly, predicted while treasurer in the 1970s precisely the kind of budget conundrums California would face for almost 20 years starting in the mid-1990s.
The early-book favorite to be the next treasurer, current Democratic state Controller John Chiang, also pulls few punches in his monthly reports on state finances and has not hesitated to offend legislators in both major parties by doing things like holding up their pay during a budget impasse.
Current Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who somewhat like Unruh was once a consummate legislative politician as president of the state Senate, loves to uphold the tradition. Back in 2003, he confided while attorney general that he had voted for a Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the special election to recall then-Gov. Gray Davis, a fellow Democrat. But for years after that, Lockyer never hesitated to cross Schwarzenegger, especially when the muscleman “governator” sometimes tried to treat the attorney general as something like a personal lawyer.
Now, in a mid-December speech in Thousand Oaks, the about-to-retire Lockyer has outlined the problems California must solve over the next generation in as bald a manner as Unruh ever did.
One is that too much of California’s state revenue now comes from income taxes and not enough from other levies like the sales tax. Like others, Lockyer believes this is one reason California continues to see a net out-migration to other states, even as foreign immigration fuels some increases in population.
He also used the word “alarming” to describe the ever-increasing income gap between rich and poor Californians. Another way to view that gap is as part of the gulf that has developed between coastal and inland Californians.
This chasm also showed up prominently in a December survey by the usually reliable Field Poll. That sampling found views of California life are far more positive among people in the wealthier coastal counties than inland.
Example: A clear majority of registered voters surveyed in the San Francisco Bay area described California as one of the best places in America to live. Just one-third of voters in the Central Valley and Inland Empire counties of Riverside and San Bernardino agreed. It is probably no coincidence that unemployment is much higher inland than near the coast.
Poll director Mark DiCamillo told one reporter that, “…Voters are viewing the state as it relates to their ability to get a job and the economic tenor of the time.”
Then there’s the gap shown by the survey between senior citizens and younger persons. More than half of Californians who are over 65 rate this as one of the best places to live, compared with about one-third of those aged 40 to 64. The numbers are plainly skewed by the fact that a higher percentage of seniors than younger people own homes outright, and – as DiCamillo observed, “The cost of living has a lot to do with (high prices for) housing. If you can get past that hurdle, California suddenly looks a lot better.”
Differences in both employment status and home ownership are big parts of the income gap Lockyer focused on.
The plain-spoken treasurer also worries about state public employee pension plans, saying the California State Teachers Retirement System, in particular, needs fixing or it “in 30 years, implodes.” By contrast, he said the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), providing pensions to public employees not in education, is “more solvent than critics would have people believe.”
Like Unruh and Chiang, Lockyer sees none of the state’s problems as insoluble. But unless the state faces up to them as in recent years it has with the budget, California will be hurting for decades to come.