Sep 302010

Tuesday night Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman met for the first time in a political debate at U.C. Davis. Immediately thereafter, pundits and bloggers far and wide started offering their opinions on the outcome. Although, since there really was no clear winner, the pundit’s opinions are rather irrelevant. Fortunately for Californians, winner or not, there was clear direction.

The two candidates vying for the office of Governor of California presented near polar opposite positions and proposals for how they would govern. Jerry Brown touted his long career in politics and his extensive experience working with government. Meg Whitman positioned herself as a political outsider well suited to effect change. Both spoke to their concern over the state budget and jobs, but each shared drastically different approaches on how they would deal with the issues.

Jerry Brown talked about cutting red tape, focusing on green technology and protecting education. Meg Whitman also said she would cut bureaucracy, but focused on her plan to cut taxes for the rich, suspend environmental regulations and was largely silent on K-12 education. Both candidates were light on details, which can be expected in a debate, but neither left any doubt as to the approach they will take as governor.

The Brown plan to address the budget will begin with bringing representatives from all state agencies together to discuss how 15% to 20% can be cut from operations. Brown stated that he knows the inner workings of Sacramento and will lead the way with an 18% reduction for the governor’s office. He also cited the need for a state salary commission to address compensation issues.

Whitman offered no details on how she would reduce state spending, other than cuts to welfare and state jobs, but repeatedly made references to how she would bring Silicon Valley managerial expertise to Sacramento. This sounds good at first blush, although one might be left wondering how said “expertise” might fit in a government environment. The tech center’s claim to fame doesn’t stem from legendary efficiency or frugality but rather from high pay, 100% paid healthcare, and happy employees. Does she plan on bringing Google style cuisine and open pet policies to state offices? Perhaps eBay’s de-stressing and meditation rooms will help reduce costs?

When asked about the issue of escalating state pension costs, which have increased from 12% of total spending to 13.9% over the past decade and continue to grow, Brown reminded voters that he pushed for a 2-tier system back in 1982, and that when he left office, retirement was calculated based on a 3-year salary average, not the present single highest year. The former governor stated clearly that retirement ages would have to go up.

Ms. Whitman responded to the same question by first attacking Brown’s ability to address pensions while receiving campaign donations from employee unions. When asked again what she would do, her response was to raise the retirement age from 55 to 65 and implement a “401K type” system to replace the current defined benefits. When pushed for how she would make this happen, she said that she would try to negotiate. But then taking one from Arnold’s failed playbook, she suggested that a ballot initiative would serve as her backup plan.

The candidates displayed vastly different styles, with Brown being the much more personable and Whitman seeming canned and rehearsed, but the true contrast was even more evident on the topic of jobs. Brown proposed a continued focus on investment in the green sector, claiming that California was once the leader in renewable energy and can be again. He talked about building out the grid, and when pushed on jobs outside of green, spoke to the cumulative effects of roofing and other energy-based retrofits, which would fuel construction jobs — the place where California is hurting the worst.

According to Meg Whitman, jobs are her main focus. But her plan is vintage Bush — the president with the worst job creation record in modern history. The former head of eBay claims that her plan will create 2 million jobs, yet its single most significant proposal is a cut in capital gains tax. The cut would take as much as $10.8 billion from state revenues, of which, according to Brown, 82% would be pocketed by people making over $500,000. Both economic theory and historical record refute Whitman’s claim that such a move will have any significant effect on job creation.

The entire debate went back and forth in a similar manner, with Brown relying on his record, and Whitman taking every opportunity to defame it. Brown repeatedly asserted that Whitman is the best friend of the rich, and Whitman fought back that Brown was married to employee unions. Other distinctions were made including Brown’s support of a path to legalization for illegal immigrants and Whitman’s opposition, but the real dividing line was drawn along the traditional Democrat/Republican positions.

In the end, other than reinforcing concerns regarding Queen Meg’s continued proclivity for half-truth and distortion, the debate should have solidified existing voter opinion on the two candidates. All Californians know that jobs and the budget are our most important concerns, so the decision will likely depend on who appears more capable of addressing the issues.

Come November, voters must decide between a very pro-business, champion of the wealthy who still purports to believe in trickle-down economics, or a career politician with an excellent record for fiscal conservatism and a commitment to advance California’s leadership in renewable energy and green technology. The choice couldn’t be more clear.

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