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Can Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo govern?

By Charles Lane

Most of America turned red last night, but I was struck by the continuing blueness of two of the nation's largest states: California and New York. Voters there chose the old-time Democratic religion, in the form of governors-elect Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo. Not only is Brown a former governor from the 70s, he is the son of a former Democratic governor from the 50s! Of course, Cuomo's dad was guv once upon a time, too. Admittedly, only Brown faced serious opposition. But the margin of Cuomo's victory on an night when other Dems running statewide won more narrowly was impressive.

I can't quite understand why either man would want the job he has just won. California and New York are not only among the largest states, they are arguably the two most dysfunctional, with massive fiscal problems and chronically unruly legislatures. There is a real question as to whether either one is governable at all anymore.

And it gets worse: Both states are already pretty much taxed to the max, so neither governor-elect really has the option of restoring solvency through higher levies. I rather doubt that House Speaker John Boehner and his minions would smile on a request for federal relief. Thus, any solution must involve taking on the public sector unions whose pensions and health benefits account for much of the two states' structural financial problems. Yet it so happens that these unions are the pillars of the California and New York Democratic political parties, without whose support neither man would be where he is today.

Therefore, Cuomo and Brown can only succeed by biting the hand that has fed them so generously. They have run on promises to make the necessary reforms through cooperation, rather than the confrontation that Republicans such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chris Christie have favored. In a country newly but probably lastingly concerned with the cost and size of government, the ability of Brown and Cuomo to make good on their pledges could influence not only their political futures, but the future of the Democratic Party nationally. It's a last chance to prove that the high-tax, high-service, high public-sector pension "blue" model of state governance can be sustained -- and these two men will have to make the most of it.

By Charles Lane  | November 3, 2010; 12:46 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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Comments

Brown in particular is screwed. California is still in a budget crisis, and will be for a long time. The governorship and legislature are now all controlled by Democrats, and so the burden falls on them to tighten belts and fix the budget. The only problem is that the California budget is largely unfixable. Spending decisions are very inflexible thanks to money tied up in propositions that voters have passed. The legislature cannot really tax more, and it can only make cuts from a small piece of the state pie.

Unless the economy rebounds and tax coffers suddenly swell, expect California to be asking for a federal bailout soon. Even in good tax years, California is in trouble, but a booming economy and the increased revenues that result might shrink the state deficit just enough to avoid disaster. A tepid economy, and Brown's ability to govern will be sapped.

Posted by: blert | November 3, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Jerry Brown maybe old, but he is by no means an old timer.

Posted by: edantes | November 3, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

jerry brown is a ward of the state.

Posted by: simonsays1 | November 3, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

All of which reinforces my centrism. CA and NY have a public-sector union problem (really, they do). As painful as it sounds, the days of defined-benefit pensions (one facet of the problem) are likely over for good, and most of us live in defined-contribution pension land anyway, if we're lucky enough to have one. Maybe it's time for a very unpleasant transition to reality (and no, I don't hate public servants. But, sorry, folks, we're broke!).

But leaving the economic field to the rapacious Wall Streeters and corporatist plutocrats playing tonsil hockey with the GOP and Tea Partiers isn't the solution either--far from it. Why is it that the IMmoderates always seem to win?

Posted by: post_reader_in_wv | November 3, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

The writer can't understand why Brown or Cuomo would want the jobs. Well I don't know about Cuomo but as for Brown, why do you think his nickname is Moonbeam?

Posted by: g30rg3544 | November 3, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Left out of the argument above is that California and New York have large economies, and that these two states Federal taxes pay for probably half the Federal subsidies that keep "flyover country" eating daily.

True, both states have generous public pension programs that will be onerous someday (much like SSI in 2037). But if these governors focus on the problems of 2010, and work to grow the economies (and tax bases) of their respective states, these "someday" problems will naturally become much smaller, and can be dealt with.

I was unsurprised (and pleased) by both outcomes yesterday. Cuomo had loons to defeat, Brown just had to get past a bored billionaire trying to buy herself a hobby.

Interesting trivia: Whitman came to California to take advantage of economic opportunities in California while Brown was governor the last time.

Posted by: OldUncleTom | November 3, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Since Proposition 25 passed in California, the block that prevented tax increases has been removed. The Democrats in the legislature are now free to increase taxes as much as they like.

Posted by: vinyl1 | November 3, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

New York,California and Massachusetts are certifiably sick states with certifiably insane voters.Despite their "liberal" reputation there is more intolerance and bigotry in those states than one would find in states of the deep South.The oppressed groups however are ignored by the Media...

Posted by: Robo14 | November 3, 2010 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Jerry will create an environment in which things can work. That's what he brings. Something very few other public servants realize is required to have success.

Posted by: leoncautillo | November 3, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

@Leon: really? In what world?

I can't believe that was the best the dems could do in CA - and he actually won. Crazy state.

They have already had masses of people who have money leave the state, they have had businesses leave the state, there's not so many left to tax. And then they go elect brown...wow. crazy.

I mean, cuomo wasn't running against anyone good - even my conservative friends there wouldn't vote against cuomo. but they're not happy with cuomo. NY isn't quite as bad as CA - but getting close...

@olduncletom: Oh, should the rest of us just thank our lucky stars that we have NY and CA to help us out in the rest of the country? what a load of crap. they actually don't send as much to the feds as you think - given their taxes are so high there (which is something that's deductible on your fed taxes). I would PREFER not to have to have states give money to the feds so that the feds dole it out. it's gross and a terrible system, given that the feds don't do that so efficiently.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | November 4, 2010 5:10 AM | Report abuse

California is completely broken. We now have a Democratic Governor, Legislator, and Two Senators, all of whom are completely beholden to labor unions. Most importantly, Public Sector Employee Unions. In the past three years, while the private sector has been tightening it's belt, the State's Government Employees has RISEN (fact: 2007-2008=343,118; 2010-2011-345,285). The cost per taxpayer has almost doubled, from $2.94 per $100 personal income in 1950, to $5.19 per $100 personal income now. Population has quadrupled from 10 million to 39 million in same time frame, while Government employees have risen from 61,000 to 345,000.

The State also passed a proposition that eliminated the 2/3 majority vote to increase taxes and spending, which means the Democratic Legislator has a blank checkbook.

This State will not cut spending, will not reduce the size of Government, will not reduce Public Employee Union pay and benefits. It is doomed. It will go bankrupt.

If you have a business, stay the hell away from here.

Jerry Brown is a joke. In a State of 39 Million People, he is the best we have?

Posted by: thurstoniii58 | November 4, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who believes that Jerry Brown will seriously challenge public-employee unions or seriously try to reduce government spending is living in fantasy-land.

A major crisis is looming because California has constructed the most business-unfriendly environment in the country. The Brown-Boxer panicked screams for a federal bailout will begin by March 2011.

Posted by: pilsener | November 4, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

In 23 of the past 28 years, a Republican has been the Governor in California.

The largest, strongest & financially most influential union in state elections has been the prison guards.

Prisons and the guard union grew under the law & order agendas of the 23 years of Republican governorship, as did the guard's pensions.

The one Governor who attempted to stand-up for fiscal sanity was the one Democratic in the last 28 year period, Gray Davis.

Davis, was impeached and thrown from office for suggesting that the State keep some of the windfall tax revenue that the State collected during his first term as governor, in a rainy-day account rather than return it all to the taxpayers (Republican desire) or use it to increase State services (Democratic desire).

Brown will be challenged in his attempts to right the fiscal ship of State, but then this fiscal difficulty was preordained by the passage of Proposition 13 back in 1978.

Many of the current challenges in the State were clearly identified by most economist prior to passage of the tax limiting proposition by the voters of the State over 30 years ago.

Of greatest benefit to both Cuomo and Brown will that they can push their own parties to think beyond their traditional agendas, given the mood expressed in this past Tuesday's election in part.

But also, and far more important, their State's economies, over which they have no control or influence, will improve with that of the rest of the nation, over the course of the next 2 to 4 years.

And in that regard, they will both receive credit for "their" great and even miraculous economic successes and astute political management.

Finally, now that public employee pensions have been deemed to be the cause and whipping boy for all of governments fiscal challenges, maybe it would be wise for us to recall, that government pensions such as those provided to retired military personnel have tended to be generous to off set much lower working salaries, which in turn allows government to compete for labor talent by being able to offer fair retirement benefits in offset to lower pay.

Yes government pensions can not be sustained at current levels, but unlike private industry, government can not walk away from their pension commitments, as many private companies chose to do over the past 20 years.

Only to leave the American taxpayer holding the bag for these private underfunded liabilities which now contribute to our national deficit.

Truth, there are no heroes on either side and our problems are the makings of all of us.

We each continue to contribute to the nation's difficulties by refusing to think or understand beyond our own self-interest.

So long as you are blue....I will oppose all that you stand for....and as for red....nothing will deter us from our course.....even if that means sailing the ship on to the rocks....then of course...any sane person will know....it is all the fault.....of you other folks...

Posted by: naross | November 4, 2010 7:43 PM | Report abuse

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