California’s Capitol Talks to John Garamendi
The Second in a series of Interviews with statewide Democratic candidates who will be attending the Democratic State Convention in Sacramento, April 24 through April 26.
(Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, the only Democrat officially running for governor, has been an Assemblyman for two years, a state senator for 14 years, the state’s first Insurance Commissioner from 1991 to 1995, a deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior from 1995 to 1998 and Insurance Commissioner again from 2003 to January 2007. The 64-year-old Mokelumne Hill native ran for governor in 1982 and 1994, losing both times in the primary. The same thing happened in 1986 when he ran for controller. He and his wife, Patti, were Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia from 1966 to 1968. After this interview, he said he is now also considering a possible candidacy for the 10th Congressional seat centered in Contra Costa County.)
CC: So what exactly was your special crime that caused the governor to cut your office’s budget from $2.8 million to $1 million back in February?
JG: I railed about (the handling of the budget) and got my budget whacked as a result. I took a very strong stance about the budget, about the secret nature of it, the way in which it was conducted and, frankly, took on the governor. This is failed leadership. In five years it’s only gotten worse.
CC: Besides the budget problems, there are so many things wrong with state government. Why would you ever want to be governor?
JG: To solve those problems. There’s a deep need of someone that’s going to go in and work. Someone who knows what’s going on and can persuade California to address the problems — one of which is the consistent borrowing. Eventually you have to pay off the credit card. Between 5 percent to 7 percent of the total budget is going to credit cards, which are being maxed out right now.
If money is used to put in place some lasting beneficial project that’s swell. But look at the transportation bonds of which there are $18 billion or more. There’s a benefit but it’s the first time ever they’re going to be paid off by the general fund rather than by users. The same thing with the water bonds. California water projects were bonded but the users, the beneficiaries, paid them off. Money for the credit card payment comes out education, particularly higher education.
CC: What was the previous model on financing public works stuff?
JG: You saw it in transportation; you saw it in flood control. The Feds would come in on flood projects, pick up a portion of the costs. There is this attitude that somehow everything is free. I just shake my head. The hypocrisy of the Republicans — specifically on this matter. Dot-Com money comes in, the Republicans vote with the Democrats to spend it all. When it comes time to pay they don’t want to step up. Just use another credit card and that’s exactly what Schwarzenegger did. The ($5 billion) Lottery (securitization on the May 19 ballot) is the last remaining credit card.
CC: So how do you get them to behave more responsibly?
JG: Governor Schwarzenegger had an epiphany and came to understand it was no longer a spending problem but a revenue problem. Instead of telling the public we have a revenue problem and addressing it with some taxes, he came out with a plan and then never brought it again. He never educated the public, which is the task as governor: Why the money is needed, why it would be beneficial to the short and long-term interests of the state. He did propose a plan and then went silent. And, in fairness, the Legislature didn’t conduct public hearings on the budget, which are a necessary part of the public education process.
CC: How do you get Republicans to behave?
JG: Take the message to California that we need to do these things and we need to pay for them.
There’s certainly a need to do education. The University of California has had at least a one-third decline in support from the staff and about half that decline has been covered by taxes on students. The budget the governor signed in February assumed a quarter of $1 billion in new taxes on students implemented directly by a vote of the Legislature and the (UC) regents and (California State University) trustees. It’s right there in the budget; the fees will go up 9.5 percent, a $700-a-year tax increase on students at the University of California.
Very directly the governor and the Legislature decided not to raise revenues from the public but rather to raise them from the students. They decided not to take on the oil companies, not to raise gasoline taxes but rather to increase the tax on students by $700 at UC and about $400 at the state university.
CC: You prefer an oil severance tax?
JG: I introduced it in 1982 and 1984. It’s a better alternative than to tax students.
CC: Have the regents and trustees actually imposed the increases yet?
JG: Votes are scheduled in May. I think there will be a reluctance. When I first arrived, (the Lieutenant Governor is a UC regent and CSU trustee) these increases were routine. There was no debate. I’ve been arguing, I think successfully, to get the regents and trustees to understand the impact on the students and that they are surrogate legislators in that the Legislature has pushed the burden off on the regents and trustees — to unelected persons — to put the tax on students.
CC: What’s on California’s mind? You see polls that show in better economic times, the top issues are education, the environment and when things are more dire, its jobs and the economy, pocketbook issues.
JG: The public is very anxious about the economy and their own employment. A sentiment certainly found in the newspaper business. The economy is the overwhelming concern of families and every unemployed or employed person in the state.
But when you say environment, economy that’s not an either/or. Addressing the environmental issue of climate change is one of our best opportunities for short and long-term job creation because the transition of our energy supply from oil, natural gas and coal to renewable sources is a very significant employment opportunity in this state and we’re already beginning to see that.
We’re seeing the solar companies begin to grow rapidly. It takes engineers, electricians and laborers and other skilled workers to install those systems particularly solar and geothermal. And those are jobs that won’t go overseas – those are California jobs. Machinists and mechanics to maintain wind turbines.
CC: That’s certainly the position of the corner office’s current occupant.
JG: Schwarzenegger has done a good job on this entire arena. He’s been a national leader and I credit him for doing that. Certainly there are jobs in this area. There are also jobs in nursing and teaching.
But all of these jobs require education, which brings me back to my central thesis – education. Twenty-five percent of the workforce isn’t able to take a job in any of these industries other than at a low wage because they don’t have the skills, because they’re dropping out of school. That’s why educational funding becomes exceedingly important when coupled with changes to improve the efficiency of education at all levels.
CC: How do you improve the efficiency of education?
JG: This little Blackberry is an awesome piece of equipment that could be a teaching tool. There’s a game on it. It could teach kids math, geography, geometry, reading, writing, spelling on this little machine I’m using to talk to you. That worksheet we went through with pencil and paper can be transmitted automatically to the teacher so the teacher knows Greg Lucas is not as good at math as he should be and we’ll spend more time on that. You could read your book on a little laptop. That’s far more efficient.
There are many other ways to be more efficient by studying s the expenditure patterns. where the money goes. We know it’s more expensive to educate non-English speaking or kids from troubled homes. We know that but the money doesn’t follow that need.
CC: At the moment, you’re the only officially declared Democrat running for governor?
JG: There are three others that are looking at the race and I would expect them to run.
CC: OK, assuming they run, why you?
JG: Trusted leadership. I’ve been a leader on all of these issues for many years and the public knows that when its time to fight for them, I’m there. I had eight years as insurance commissioner where I proved beyond anybody’s doubt that I’m going to stand up for individuals against the most powerful special interest there is the insurance industry.
My family. I have experience both legislative and executive. Both state and federal. International experience. I’ve been involved at the highest levels of the national government and the state government and continue to be. That’s valuable experience. If California is going to succeed we’ll have to work with the federal government. That’s not news but some seem to think it is.
Knowledge of the issues. Water issues, for example. None of the other three have worked in water. I’ve been a 30-year participant in water issues at the state and federal level. When it’s time to talk about water there’s only one person who knows it from the North to the South and in-between.
CC: How’s the fund-raising going?
JG: The first quarter is always the worst quarter. We did not even attempt to make the first quarter a major fundraising quarter. I grew up in agriculture and I know you have to plant the seeds before you harvest the crop. This is the time to plant the seeds. We’ll harvest in June and in the fall. And then this economy coming off the election cycle. This is the planting season not the harvesting season.
CC: Do you have a position on the three budget-related measures on the May Special Election ballot?
JG: The lament for the last couple years is that the government has been tied in knots by initiatives. I cannot understand why we want to put three more knots on top of the Gordian knot. I don’t support them.
CC: If there’s no silver bullet, is there one thing or two things we can change that would really help? Redistricting? An open primary? Get rid of some of the initiatives hat have tied government in knots, like Proposition 13 or Proposition 98?
JG: They do make it extremely difficult for government to function. Those aren’t the only examples, there are many more. As to redistricting, the earliest it will have any impact is 2013. Will it work? I’ve been through four decades of redistricting and three of the four were done by judges and life went on. It’s not going to end partisanship. It will shift some seats around but at the end of the day it will have a modest effect.
CC: An open primary?
JG: I don’t know. I want to study the effect in Washington state. I talked to (U.S. Senator) Barbara Boxer who lived through an open primary and she thought it led to a far more expensive primary, one in which you have to reach out to the entire electorate. She characterized it as two general elections in a row. I think that’s a fair characterization. Is it better for the democracy? We’ll see what happens in Washington. I’m dubious it will lead to a better Legislature but I’m open.
CC: So should we get rid of Proposition 13 and Proposition 98?
JG: I don’t have an answer just yet. There are three parts to (Prop) 13. The two-thirds vote for tax increases, the commercial assessment and the homeowner property tax limit. We’re not going to get rid of the homeowner piece. That’s not going to happen. The other two are worthy of review and certainly modification.
CC: How’s the brood?
JG: We’ve been so blessed. There are nine grandkids. Patti’s great. The kids are great and so are the grandkids. There’s been enough rain for grass to grow so my cows are happy too.
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