An election? We prefer to call it a job interview.
If you’re a registered voter in the state of California, you have a few decisions to make. As a member of one of the world’s largest hiring boards, you and 8 to 15 million of your fellow Californians will decide who ought to run our state. This is about more than picking the applicants you like the best. You’re also deciding how we collectively manage our finances, keep our most vulnerable citizens healthy and safe, protect our environment, and plan for our future.
There’s a long list of positions to fill (from governor to senator to controller—we’ll explain what that is here too), and an even longer list of applicants. We’ve put together all the information you’ll need to make an informed decision. So read on, and choose wisely.
From the Gold Rush to Hollywood to Silicon Valley, California is supposed to be the land of opportunity—or so we sometimes like to tell ourselves. While the “California Dream” wasn’t always available to everyone, the economics of just getting by are more unforgiving now than they were in decades past. Income inequality has soared, we have the highest poverty rate in the country, and the odds of a California kid out-earning her parents are about dismal as they’ve ever been.
Over half of the state’s discretionary spending goes to education. Yet the majority of public school students aren’t passing state tests for reading and math, and the cost of a college education bars many from accessing the state’s go-to engine of upward mobility.
Achievement gap: Five years have passed since Gov. Jerry Brown and Legislature fundamentally changed the way state education dollars are distributed. They called their new approach the Local Control Funding Formula, but what it means is that the state sends money with almost no strings attached to schools based on their enrollment of disadvantaged students. The results are debatable. The chronic academic achievement gap between the non-needy and low-income students, and between students of different ethnic groups, has barely budged. That has fueled a push for more transparency and accountability.
Charter schools: Funded with public money, charters—which have existed in California for more than three decades and now number 1,275—have more flexibility when it comes to curriculum, school management decisions, and hiring. But where supporters see flexibility, critics see a lack of accountability. State law requires school districts, county boards, or the state itself to monitor charter operations—to ensure that the schools are open to all students and they are offering a quality education—but in a number of high profile examples, schools have slipped through the regulatory cracks. Charter skeptics are particularly critical for-profit charters school. Teachers’ unions are wary for other reasons: They divert resources and students away from school districts and they are under no obligation to unionize.
Costs of college: The sticker price for a year of undergrad education at a University of California campus is about $13,900. Adjusted for inflation, that’s seven times the costs of tuition and fees in the mid-1960s. Through a combination of state and federal grants and scholarships, most low-income students at California public colleges and universities attend tuition-free, and the average cost of a community college education in California is also the lowest of any state. But tuition is only one piece of the equation. Housing, textbooks, and transportation can add up to an additional $19,000 per year or more. Those extra costs can make even tuition-free college out of reach for many.
Affordable childcare: For many California families, childcare is the number one household expense. Placing a six-year-old in a licensed care center runs $5,700 per year on average, according to the California Budget and Policy Center. For an infant, the annual total is more than $15,000. Why are the costs so high? Childcare is a labor-intensive business and wages account for much of the cost, but child care workers are hardly raking it in. Other reasons for the high price: the state’s strict licensing standards and, as with every industry here, the high cost of rent. While some legislators have pushed for publicly-funded universal pre-school, Gov. Brown vetoed a “preschool for all” bill in late 2015. Legislators are once again considering a similar proposal this year.
It’s practically part of the state’s political DNA. For decades, California has stood at the vanguard of aggressive environmental protections and stringent regulations. With the departure of Gov. Jerry Brown, who famously declared climate change “an existential threat” and pioneered policies that the world is watching, the state’s new leaders have big decisions to make.
Wildfires: Last year California experienced its largest wildfire on record—the Thomas Fire that raged from Ventura to the outskirts of Santa Barbara—just months after three of its deadliest fires, in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties. Last year, the state’s firefighting agency spent nearly $700 million putting out fires—a record and far in excess of its suppression budget. The fires resulted from bad luck, climate change, and years of drought followed by torrential rain. But some experts say the state must modify policies that have allowed forests to grow too dense and private development to encroach too far into wild land.
Water: For roughly a century, California water policy has boiled down to this: How do we get water in the north to farms and cities in the south?
Gov. Jerry Brown’s answer: two 30-mile tunnels that would connect the Sacramento River to the state’s southbound aqueducts. In February, the governor opted to push for just one tunnel instead. The project would be financed by water agencies and southern water users, rather than the state. It also has the backing of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest municipal water supplier in the country. Even so, it’s controversial, with some arguing it isn’t worth the $11 billion cost, that it could harm the economy and ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and that the state should focus more on water storage and conservation.
Cap and trade: If you’re a major polluter in the state of California and you want to emit carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases that warm the planet, you have to pay a price. That price is set by the California cap-and-trade market, which has been running since 2012. Here’s how it works: the state sets a California-wide limit on greenhouse gas emissions over the course of a year (that’s the “cap”). Environmental regulators then divvy up that amount and assign different polluters emission permits—some are auctioned off, others are handed out directly. Polluters can trade these “right to pollute” allowances if they go green, a financial incentive to reduce emissions. And each year, the cap drops lower. For many conservatives—especially those who don’t think California should be doing anything to reduce carbon emissions in the first place—the added cost on industry and consumers isn’t worth it. Some progressives are lukewarm too, arguing that the state should do more to cut back on local pollution and not just emissions in the aggregate.
Rising seas: Best estimates say melting ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic could raise the sea level along the California coastline by as much as 10 feet over the next 70 years. What would that mean for the state? Most projections include floods in the Bay Area, salt intrusion up the Sacramento Delta, and hundreds of feet of lost beachfront property in southern California. What should the state do to prepare—build seawalls, extend wetlands, ban new coastal development? Or pack up and head for the hills?
Yes, we are still arguing about healthcare. No state took to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) quite like California, and though the law is still alive (if not altogether well), now many progressives want to go further—a lot further.
Creating a single-payer health system: Last June, Democrats in the state Senate passed a bill that promised comprehensive health insurance to all—universal coverage with no premiums, copays, or deductibles—but the idea stalled in the Assembly. Why the hold up? First, the proposal lacked a funding source. Second, the price tag—between $330 and $400 billion—was at least double all of the state’s spending. Supporters of the bill, like the California Nurses Association, argue that roughly half of that could be cobbled together by redirecting public money that is already spent in California through Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal programs. But this would require (unlikely) waivers from the Trump administration, and making up the difference would still demand an unprecedented tax hike. A proposed alternative takes a more graduated approach to universal coverage: bills that would bolster subsidies to those who buy private insurance on the individual market, increase payments to doctors who serve Medi-Cal patients, cap consumer drug costs, and open the possibility of a publicly-funded insurance plan that Californians could buy into.
Medical care for undocumented immigrants: Since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the number of Californians without health insurance has plummeted from 17 percent in 2013 to just 7 percent today. Who make up the remaining 7 percent? A disproportionate number are undocumented immigrants. Though California covers low-income children up to the age of 18 regardless of immigration status, adults who are in the country illegally are barred from accessing most of the state’s subsidized health insurance programs. But legislation is pending to change that.
Forcing treatment for mental illness: Under California law, the state can compel psychiatric treatment only if a person“as a result of a mental health disorder, is a danger to others, or to himself or herself, or (is) gravely disabled.” That’s the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, a 1967 law that ended the indefinite, involuntary, and frequently unwarrented commitment of tens of thousands of Californians to mental institutions. It was championed as a civil rights landmark. But some public health and medical experts now argue that the law went too far, is inconsistently applied, and is so ambiguous that it gives authorities license to ignore those in need. These calls for reform are amplified by the growing public conversation about homelessness. Though the majority of Californians who don’t have a roof over their heads do not suffer from mental illness, the severely mentally ill are often the most visible face of the crisis. Some contend that our reluctance to intervene means those people suffer more, only to wind up in the state’s emergency rooms, county jails, or worse. Others warn that history’s abuses offer a cautionary lesson.
No surprise: living in the Golden State is expensive. Renters are squeezed, homeownership is increasingly out of reach, and half of all unsheltered Americans—those who sleep on sidewalks, park benches, and under freeway overpasses—live in California. Here’s what to know:
Rent control: Economically, this one’s a double-edged sword: It makes rent more affordable for many existing tenants, but it also makes landlording less profitable, which can discourage building new units and can lead owners to neglect their properties or stop renting them. For more than two decades, California has lived under the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which bans new rent control laws and prevents existing controls from applying to new homes. A repeal may be on the November ballot.
Homelessness: Federal stats show that for every 10,000 California, 34 are homeless—giving us the third-highest rate in the nation. Worse yet, of the over 110,000 people living in the state without a permanent home, nearly 70 percent are sleeping without a shelter of any kind—and by that measure, California comes first. Since 2016, the number of Californians experiencing homelessness has increased 14 percent. The results are dire. A hepatitis outbreak in San Diego. A wildfire in Bel Air. Untold suffering and indignity.
Forcing development near transit: What should the state do if locals don’t want the new housing—and the higher density, crowding, and noise that might come with it? One controversial proposal, SB 827, would have automatically allowed higher, denser housing to be built near public transit stops, no matter what local rules say. That bill died in committee, but the debate continues.
Solving the shortage: While some cities and towns have met the demand for new construction, the state’s housing department estimates nearly 98 percent are failing to build what’s needed to keep up with population growth. Developers blame the California Environmental Quality Act, which dictates a review process that allows labor groups, NIMBYs, and business rivals to sue or threaten suits—slowing or killing new developments. Others say full environmental reviews and lawsuits are relatively rare. Another debate resolves around using state funds to subsidize affordable housing. Some want to boost funding for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which gives developers a tax break for building and rehabbing below-market rentals. Last year, state lawmakers added $200 million for affordable housing development with a $75 fee on many real estate filings. This November, voters will decide if the state should borrow $4 billion to fund low-income-housing construction and discount home loans for vets. Finally there’s debate over whether to fill a multi-billion dollar hole left when California abolished local “redevelopment” agencies, which once were the primary source of state funding for affordable housing. Critics point out that much of the money collected by these agencies was spent poorly or not spent at all, but some lawmakers want to bring it back in a more targeted form.
In 1994, California voters passed initiatives to lock away repeated offenders and deny social services to undocumented immigrants. But times have changed. California is now a “sanctuary state” for those residing in the country illegally, tough on crime laws have been relaxed, and progressive lawmakers want to end cash bail. Is criminal justice reform the new political normal or will tough on crime make a comeback?
Capital punishment: In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 62, which streamlines the appeals process for inmates on death row. In the same election, voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have ended capital punishment in the state. California has only carried out 15 executions since 1978, the last one in 2006. But with the new law in place, the next governor may be asked to administer California’s first execution in over a decade.
Police shooting investigations: In March, two Sacramento Police Department officers shot and killed Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard, apparently mistaking the cell phone in his hand for a gun. In response, the California Department of Justice announced that it would be overseeing the investigation into Clark’s death. For years, bills have been introduced in Sacramento that would require state oversight in all such investigations, but none have made it out of the legislature. That’s in part due to the opposition of law enforcement unions.
Sanctuary State: Under California’s recently enacted “sanctuary state” law, cops and sheriffs cannot inquire about a person’s immigration status, keep a person in custody based solely on a request from immigration authorities, help immigration agents make arrests or transfer people to federal custody without a warrant. In March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sued California for a series of state immigration laws, including the sanctuary state law. The administration argues that California is in violation of a federal law that bans any restrictions on communication between law enforcement officers and immigration agents about an arrestee’s immigration status. California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, counters that the U.S. Constitution bans the federal government for requiring state law enforcement to enforce federal law.
Cash bail: How do courts ensure that someone charged with a crime will show up for trial? In California, judges use cash bail: put down a deposit up front and if you show up, you get the money back. If a defendant can’t afford the set bail amount, they can contract with a bail bond company, which will make the payment for a fee. But criminal justice reform advocates say that this system penalizes the poor, while allowing the well-off to purchase their freedom. The state Senate is currently considering an alternative system that would either keep an arrestee in jail or allow them to go home pre-trial based on their assessed flight risk and danger to the public.
Non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment settlements: Over the last year, three California lawmakers have stepped down over sexual misconduct allegations. Another member of the Assembly took a leave of absence in the wake of harassment allegations, a senator was banned from giving hugs, and the Legislature has released a cache of harassment investigation records naming over a dozen employees. Some of these allegations went undisclosed to the public for years, in part because those making the allegations were bound by non-disclosure agreements. This year, the state Senate is considering a bill that would ban both public and private employers from placing secrecy requirements in legal agreements related to sexual misconduct.
Taxes & Budget
Taxes & Budget
The downside of having a functioning government is that you actually have to pay for it. Want a new state program? You’ll have to tax someone for the privilege. Think taxes should be cut? Better slash some spending first. Want to make a promise to the future? Make sure you can keep it first—or pity the sucker who takes your job after you’re gone. Tax and spending debates are perennial in the Golden State, in part because there are no easy answers.
Revenue volatility: The state’s fiscal health depends a lot on the fortunes of the very rich: about half of the state’s money comes from the personal income tax and about half of that comes from people earning over $500,000. That makes our tax system progressive, but it also makes it more volatile. That’s because the taxable income of the wealthy yo-yos with the business cycle, while other sources of tax revenue, like sales and property values, remain more steady. Gov. Jerry Brown has tried to address the volatility problem by stocking cash into a budgetary rainy day fund, but others have proposed changing the tax code itself.
Prop 13 reform—split-roll: In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, which capped property taxes equal to 1 percent of a property’s purchase price, then allowing for annual increases of no more than 2 percent per year. Prop 13 has been a boon for longtime property owners, but it has taken a significant bite out of state and local tax revenues. One proposed initiative that could be back on the 2020 ballot would exempt commercial and industrial property owners from the law, assessing their properties at current market value rather than their purchase price. According to the state government’s budget analyst, this tax hike on California commercial landlords would raise an additional $6 to $10 billion annually.
Pension obligations: If you look at the difference between what state and local governments have promised their current and retired employees in pension and health care payments, you come up just over $400 billion short. If this shortfall represents a growing concern for the state, it’s already a catastrophe for some cities. Pension costs were implicated in the municipal bankruptcies of both Stockton and Vallejo, while cities like Richmond have been forced to cut services.
The California Rule: For decades, California courts have held that any pension benefit that a state or local government promises to a current worker are unbreakable contracts that can only be reduced if the employee is offered something of equal value in return. But in a series of rulings beginning in 2013, that precedent was broken. As one appeals court judge wrote, governments only owe current workers a “reasonable” pension, not an “immutable entitlement.” As governor, Jerry Brown has sided with that judge, arguing that state lawmakers need more flexibility to shore up public pension systems. The California Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case soon.
It’s been an eventful two years for California transportation, following several years of neglect. Last spring, the Legislature hiked the gas tax for the first time in decades. This year, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require all new cars sold in the state to be electric by 2040. And a proposed high-speed rail project continues to inch forward—with an ever-growing price tag.
Gas tax: Last spring, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature agreed to spend an extra $50 billion on road repairs over the next ten years. Most people acknowledged that the state’s aging transportation infrastructure was long overdue for a patch-up. But the new spending comes at a cost. The repairs are paid for with a 12-cent gas tax hike along with other new fees on vehicles and fuel. California voters historically have not been kind to politicians who make driving more expensive; this year Republicans are counting on history to repeat itself in key legislative races. Voters also may get the option via a November ballot measure to repeal the tax hike and to require any future gas or vehicle tax increase be approved by voters.
Bullet train: Californians used to love the high-speed rail. Back in 2008, voters approved a nearly $10 billion bond to fund a modern, green transportation system that would thread together some of the state’s most economically disadvantaged regions with its biggest opportunity centers. The future of California transportation: zipping from San Francisco to Los Angeles by way of the Central Valley at 220 mph. But since then, things have gotten…complicated. The project has been beset with planning delays, half a dozen lawsuits and cost overruns. The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s most recent business plan puts the final price tag between $63 to 98 billion—roughly double the initial estimate. With the imminent retirement of the project’s most faithful champion, Gov. Jerry Brown, the next generation of California leaders will decide whether to rally the necessary financial and political capital to propel the project, or scrap it.
To Primary: June 5th, 2018
Until Primary Day
GOP state party convention
Candidates for governor debate in San Jose from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Broadcast on NBC/Telemundo affiliated stations and KQED radio.
Voter registration deadline (for primary)
Vote-by-mail request deadline (primary)
Vote centers open in Voter’s Choice Act counties: Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento, and San Mateo.
California Primary Day!
California voters by party
Percentage of eligible Californians who vote in primaries
How the candidates for governor are polling
Word cloud from the ballot descriptions of 670 candidates across California. By Ben Christopher/CALmatters
On the ballot below his or her name, candidates for office in California are given a maximum of three words to write a bio.
Thought, debate, public-opinion research and sometimes even litigation are part of coming up with these short descriptions.