Everything about California is outsize—including its budget deficit, soaring unemployment and legislative gridlock. So too is the record-setting race to be the next governor of this tarnished Golden State.
Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, spent a whopping $81 million in her first bid for office to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination, most of it her own money. That's about $53 for every vote cast for her. The 54-year-old billionaire said she's willing to spend $150 million from her personal fortune.
"After a successful 30 years in business, I have the unique skill set to lead California," she said.
Attorney General Jerry Brown has the advantage of being a Democrat in a Democratic-leaning state and one of California's best-known political figures. Brown became California's youngest governor of the 20th century in 1975 and is seeking to be its oldest governor ever at 72. In his first stint as governor, Brown was renowned for dating singer Linda Ronstadt, eschewing the governor's mansion to sleep on the floor of his bachelor pad and proposing such unusual ideas that he was labeled "Governor Moonbeam." As attorney general since 2007, he has been fighting against violent and environmental crimes.
"Everything I have done in my life has prepared me to fix the mess in Sacramento," Brown said.
He said he'll overhaul the budget-writing process—from getting the public more involved in the decision making to engaging with the legislature in December, earlier than in the past. He said "huge swaths" of government must be cut or taxes increased. And he said he will only raise taxes if the voters approve an initiative supporting a tax hike.
Brown has said little about what he would cut beyond legislative and gubernatorial perks, saying he'll consult with the legislature and public. "These things are going to take a great public debate," he said.
Whitman agreed the current budget process is broken, and also calls for starting earlier to develop a spending plan with the legislature. She supports a two-year budget cycle to encourage long-term planning, as well as a spending cap tied to the state's gross domestic product that would increase only when the state's economy grows. She said the spending cap would "enforce fiscal discipline" and avoid tax hikes.
She has proposed $15 billion in spending cuts. She would freeze hiring to reduce the state government workforce through attrition by more than 10 percent, or 40,000 workers.
"Just as in business, I will refuse to allow the state to spend more than what it takes in," she said.
Robert M. Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies, said both candidates are ducking real solutions.
"The candidates are doing everything in their power not to be specific because the more specific they are, the more votes they lose because there are few choices left that make voters happy," Stern said.
The candidates' choices are even more limited by the structural issues that stymied past governors, including a two-thirds legislative vote requirement for budget and tax approvals and a deeply divided legislature.
"Right now, we have a structure that requires exceptional leadership to get something done," said James Mayer, executive director of California Forward, a bipartisan government reform group.
In the past two years, voters have approved two AARP-backed initiatives—redistricting reform and an open primary—that may reduce divisions within the legislature. Another issue on the November ballot, Proposition 25, would lower the legislative vote threshold for budget approval from two-thirds to a simple majority.
"Additional reforms are needed to turn California around," said Tom Porter, AARP state director. "AARP will be working with lawmakers and reform groups to help eliminate the obstacles to progress so that we ensure California's next governor can effectively lead this state toward a better future."
Laura Mecoy is a freelance writer based in California.