Job Posting:

Governor of California

Job Description

Starting Salary: $195,803

California voters are looking for a highly organized go-getter to serve as our state’s next chief executive. This is a four-year contract position with the possibility of a one-time extension.

As governor, this employee will supervise more than a quarter-million state employees, command the National Guard, write an annual budget proposal exceeding $180 billion, and probably serve as the only state politician that most Californians know by name.


  • Ability to cajole, flatter, and goad 120 stubborn assembly members and senators into advancing a policy agenda.
  • Familiarity with the following issues: how to prepare for the next recession, how to manage the state’s burgeoning pension liabilities, whether to support bail reform, whether to support a state-run, single-payer health insurance program, how to respond to possible cuts in federal Medicaid spending, how to increase transparency and close achievement gaps in public education, how to encourage more housing development, whether to stick with the current governor’s climate change policies, and how to prepare for next year’s fire season. Among other things.
  • Oratory skills sufficient to give an annual “State of the State” speech
  • Required: Know enough qualified people to fill positions at 457 offices, boards, and agencies. These include the Department of Finance (which helps write the budget and provides fiscal advice), the Environmental Protection Agency (which regulates water use, toxic substances, and runs the state cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases), the Health and Human Services Agency (which runs Medi-Cal and the state’s welfare programs), and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
  • Preferred: Understand what those offices, boards, and agencies actually do
  • Willingness to accept credit for state policy successes—deserved or not
  • Willingness to accept blame for state policy failures—deserved or not
  • Perks:
    A flexible schedule: The governor will have the option to call special sessions of the Legislature to take up the special causes.
    A blue pencil with which to cross out particular expenses the Legislature thinks the state should pay for, but the governor doesn’t.

While the previous 38 holders of this office have been men (37 of them white, except for roughly 10 months in 1875), technically, we are an equal opportunity employer.

Hiring Update

And then there were two. After a raucous first round of interviews with nearly 30 applicants, the hiring committee has narrowed the field down to Gavin Newsom and John Cox.

Newsom, the current lieutenant governor, remains the strongest applicant by virtue of the fact that he consistently comes first in the polls, has raised the most money, and most Californians actually know who he is. He’s also a Democrat. John Cox, a Republican businessman who has never held office, says that he is the best candidate to “clean the barn” (think “drain the swamp,” but purpose-built for Sacramento’s cowtown image). He also has the backing of President Donald Trump. That seal of approval helped him get this far but it may prove to be a liability with most voters.

The Interviews

On-the-job role play

Compare Applicants

Create a Side-by-Side-Comparison

Click or tap the dropdown to choose the issue you want to see the candidate's stances on.
  • California Dream
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Healthcare
  • Housing
  • Justice
  • Taxes & Budget
  • Transportation

What happened to the California Dream? How did we get here?

John Cox: "Well, if I look at what's happened to California over the last 30 years—and I witnessed it back in Illinois as well—it's the growth of the power of special interest, of people that have an agenda and are able to get it enacted in the state legislature and with the governors."
Gavin Newsom: "When you have eight million people—roughly, plus or minus—living below the poverty line, and 46% of our children at or near the poverty line, based on supplemental poverty analysis, clearly we have failed. And this has been a trendline throughout most of my life. And increasingly it's becoming a headline...I am concerned that we ain’t seen nothing yet. The next iteration of technology, what's happening with IT and globalization detonating at the same time, is going to make this perhaps the most vexing issue facing the next governor, and governors all across this country, for that matter, leaders all around the rest of the world. So this is the issue. Outside the existential issues around energy and climate change, the issue of income and wealth disparity is the issue."

What would you do as governor to address the problem?

John Cox: "There's a lot of mismanagement and a lot of improvements I can make. I'm gonna have fun turning around this state because we call it low hanging fruit in the business world. There's a lot of low hanging fruit in this state to improve, and I'm looking forward to building a team of business people like myself that will come in the government and re-engineer it and reinvent it. I'm here to tell you, Gavin Newsom isn't gonna do that. Villaraigosa isn't gonna do that, and why? Because the people funding their campaigns don't want that."
Gavin Newsom: "For me, I'm a Democrat that doesn't begrudge other people's success. I don't come at it from the lens of a redistribution perspective. I come at it from a pre-distribution perspective. What do I mean by that? I would argue the reason it's happened is that our interventions have come too late...The number one predictor of whether or not you're going to end up in the criminal justice system is the number of words you speak in kindergarten...Prenatal care. Half the births in California plus are Medi-Cal births. Zero to Three. Nurse home visits...the imperative of talking to your kids, reading to your kids and having an engagement that is systemic, that is organized, and deliberative, and resourced, I think is the most profound thing we can do to change the trajectory."

Do you think the way California channels more money to schools with needier students (the Local Control Funding Formula) has been a success?

John Cox: No. He says the best way to improve schools would be to introduce more competition by establishing more charter schools and providing vouchers for families to spend on private education. “Throwing more money or re-allocating money is okay but it's not gonna get to the fundamental issue.”
Gavin Newsom: Yes. He says he supports the program, but that he would also push for more scrutiny, to “make sure those dollars are being accountable and used as they were intended.”

Should charter schools play a larger role in California education?

John Cox: Yes. He says the “ultimate goal” of his education policy would be to increase the number of charters in the state.
Gavin Newsom: Sort of. He says he is not “ideologically opposed” to charters, but also says more should be done to improve accountability and transparency.

How would you make a college education—and the experience of going to college—more affordable in California?

John Cox: As governor, he says that he will study the issue, but blames high tuition costs on “easy financing.”
Gavin Newsom: Proposes the state launch college savings accounts for every California kindergartener and supports two tuition-free years of community college. He also supports increasing state funding for living expense grants through the Cal Grant B program.

How would you close the persistent achievement gap?

John Cox: He says the state should allow more charter schools to open, provide vouchers to families that want to send their kids to private schools, and facilitate more homeschooling if necessary. “Competition is why I get up every single day wanting to be better than the next guy, and that competition is not available in our education system.”
Gavin Newsom: He says more social services and a broader array of educational options should be provided at schools directly . He also says more should be done to recruit a more diverse teaching workforce to promote “cultural competency” in the classroom.

Should the state act to make childcare more affordable?

John Cox: (Not yet responded)
Gavin Newsom: Yes. He supports universal preschool, more pre-natal care, and says the state should “advance” paid maternity family leave “at a much broader scale.”

What should the state be doing differently to manage the threat of wildfire?

John Cox: He says the state should allow for more logging to reduce overly dense forest growth, build more roads on forest land to create firebreaks, and allow private companies to explore other uses of dead trees.
Gavin Newsom: He says he supports carrying on the work of Gov. Brown’s Tree Mortality Taskforce and getting “much more aggressive” on dead tree and brush removal.

Do you support the Delta water tunnels project?

John Cox: No. As with the high-speed rail project, he has referred to the tunnel project as a “boondoggle.”
Gavin Newsom: Yes. He says he is more likely to support a single tunnel, rather than two. “One thing we can't do is walk away from this and that means it has to be addressed immediately.”

Do you support the state’s cap-and-trade program?

John Cox: No. “The cap-and-trade tax is raising the price of gasoline and the gasoline cost is already so high for the working people in the state. It's regressive. It is counterproductive and I would almost certainly roll that back.
Gavin Newsom: Yes. He calls the program “vital to our climate leadership.”

With sea levels predicted to rise as a result of climate change, should the state start building levees or prevent new development along the coast?

John Cox: Unclear. He says the question of how climate change will affect California is “above my pay grade. I'm not a climatologist.”
Gavin Newsom: Yes. He says he supports current initiatives to address beach erosion and flooding. A lot of that work needs to be amplified by the next governor. Those best practices need to be shared up and down the coast

Do you want to create a single-payer healthcare system to cover all Californians—managed and funded by the state? If so, how would that work?

John Cox: No. “Why stop at healthcare? Why not have single payer food?”
Gavin Newsom: Yes. He supports establishing a state-run insurance program. He has suggested that the program could be funded with a payroll tax, but has not offered specifics.”I don't know how to do it, because it's never been done. But I believe it can be done.”

Undocumented immigrants can't receive subsidized health coverage through the state’s private health insurance exchange. Should the state do anything to help this population get covered and, if so, what?

John Cox: No. “I don't believe in giving benefits to people who have broken the law to come to the country.”
Gavin Newsom: Yes. He says “we’re going to have to insure the undocumented,” but does not yet offer specific details on how this would be done.

Should the state make it easier to compel mentally ill people to receive psychiatric treatment against their will?

John Cox: Yes. He says he will consult with experts on how to ensure that those suffering from mental illness receive the treatment they need while respecting civil liberties. He also said that the local officials should more strictly enforce vagrancy laws.
Gavin Newsom: Sort of. He says he is “open to argument” and leans “in the direction” of more coerced treatment, but says his priority for mental health policy is early detection and intervention.

Should the state allow cities to enact new rent controls?

John Cox: No. “Price controls never, ever work.” He opposes Proposition 10.
Gavin Newsom: Not really. He says that an “outright repeal” of Costa-Hawkins could have a “chilling effect on housing production in the state,” but that he might support a compromise that would allow more units to be rent controlled and make evictions more difficult. He opposes Proposition 10.

What should the state be doing to help reduce homelessness?

John Cox: He says that the state should engage in public-private partnerships with charities and nonprofits to provide assistance to homeless Californians. He also blames the state’s homeless problem on the high cost of prison operations: “We can’t afford to keep people in jail, so we’re releasing them to the streets.”
Gavin Newsom: He says the state should provide more funding for supportive housing (affordable housing with in-house social services) and use Medi-Cal (Medicaid) funding to provide physical and mental health treatment for homeless individuals. He also says he will appoint a “Secretary of Homelessness” in his cabinet.

Should the state ever force cities to allow more development to ease the statewide housing shortage?

John Cox: No. He says that some urban areas will have to allow for more, denser development, but he does not think the state should be imposing those requirements. He opposed SB 827 (a bill that would have required local governments to allow dense development around public transportation corridors, but which failed in the Senate), which he called a “top-down, one-size-fits-all state edict.”
Gavin Newsom: Sort of. He says he supports the idea of encouraging more dense development around public transit corridors, of making transit funding conditional on whether a city meets its state housing goals and of creating a “Regional Housing Appeal Board” to provide developers with “recourse against localities” who refuse to allow new construction. He says that he supports the “intent” of SB 827 (a bill that would have required local governments to allow dense development around public transportation corridors, but which failed in the Senate), but he did not support the bill outright.

What else should the state do to spur more housing development?

John Cox: He calls for the “the repeal and replacement of CEQA” and opposes subsidizing housing construction. He opposes Proposition 1, the $4 billion affordable housing bond on the ballot.
Gavin Newsom: Newsom says he supports Proposition 1, the $4 billion affordable housing bond on the ballot, wants to put an additional $500 million into the state’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, and wants to encourage the use of enhanced infrastructure financing districts (a more limited version of redevelopment agencies). He also wants to expand to the list of “socially desirable” projects that receive exemptions from environmental review.

As governor, would you carry out scheduled executions?

John Cox: Yes. Though he personally opposes the death penalty, he says he wouldn’t put his own “person predilections” above the law.
Gavin Newsom: Unclear. “We're going to have to deal with it when we have to deal with it. My opposition to the death penalty is well known.”

Should the state step in to investigate when local police kill someone?

John Cox: No. He said that there should be independent investigations of police shootings that do not involve the local police department or police officers’ unions. But the state should not serve that role. “I believe the local community is more attuned to what's going on and will understand things a lot more.”
Gavin Newsom: Yes. “I support independent investigations into use-of-force cases.” He says he would support such a program if it were run out of the state Attorney General's office.

Should state and local law enforcement officers assist federal authorities in immigration enforcement?

John Cox: Yes. “I want to make sure we end the sanctuary state movement.”
Gavin Newsom: No. He supports the sanctuary state bill saying that all residents should “feel confident to come forward and engage with law enforcement.”

Should the state end cash bail?

John Cox: No. “Bail has a purpose: making sure that people show up.”
Gavin Newsom: Yes. “Let’s slam the doors on cash bail.”

Do you want to ban the common practice of resolving sexual harassment suits with secrecy agreements?

John Cox: Sort of. He supports a ban for public sector employees only. “I don't think government should restrict contracts in the private sector.”
Gavin Newsom: Sort of. He said supports the idea, but would have to learn more about the details of the specific proposal. “I'm inclined to be supportive.”

How would you change the tax code so that state tax revenues aren’t so volatile?

John Cox: He says he would support lowering, or even eliminating, the state income tax and “reducing taxes at all levels.” He argues that the state could make up the difference by running the government in a more efficient manner.
Gavin Newsom: He warns that when the economy catches a cold, “our budget is going to catch the flu.” He has suggested a sales tax on services, reforming Prop 13, an oil severance tax, and adjusting income tax rates as part of a possible solution.

Should the state change the way that commercial property is taxed under Prop. 13?

John Cox: No. He supports allowing homeowners to take their Prop 13 savings with them when they move.
Gavin Newsom: Sort of. He says he supports reforming Prop 13, ensuring that commercial property is reassessed if at least half of its ownership has exchanged hands. He also says Prop 13 reform should be considered as part of a “broader conversation on tax reform in the state.”

What should the state do, if anything, to ensure that some cities aren’t bankrupted by pension and healthcare benefits owed to retired public employees?

John Cox: He suggests that the state might increase the retirement age and limit the ability of public employees to collect multiple government jobs.
Gavin Newsom: He says pension obligations, where they are fiscally unsustainable, should be renegotiated through the collective bargaining process, rather than “by fiat or ballot.”

The California Supreme Court may soon decide if the state should be allowed to renegotiate the future retirement benefits of current workers, or if those promises are unbreachable contracts. What do you think?

John Cox: He says state and local governments should be allowed to modify the contracted future benefits of current employees. “In the private sector, that's not even an issue. If I have a business that's not working very well and I have benefits that aren't affordable and the business isn't working, I'm gonna have to tell people we can't keep accruing these future benefits.”
Gavin Newsom: Unclear. “That fight is underway, and there's not much that the next governor can do...even with the California rule, we have the tools through collective bargaining to negotiate reforms and commensurate offsets.”

What other major fiscal changes would be required to pay for your policy vision?

John Cox: He says the state can pay for across-the-board tax cuts by cutting public school administrative spending, making the California Transportation Agency operate more efficiently, and tackling other areas of mismanagement, which he calls “low hanging fruit.”
Gavin Newsom: He says the state can pay for a significant increase in public health spending by introducing a new payroll tax. He says the state could find additional savings by driving down the cost of technology services and products that the state procures.

Should the state repeal the recent increase in the gas tax? If so, how should we pay for the transportation improvements it would have funded?

John Cox: Yes. He calls it “a regressive, horrible tax” and has financially supported a potential ballot proposal to repeal it. He says the difference in funding can be made up by cutting road building costs.
Gavin Newsom: No. He says that Democrats voting to increase the gas tax to fund transportation infrastructure demonstrated a “profile in courage.”

Do you support the high speed rail project—and if so, how should it be funded?

John Cox: No. He calls it “a monument to corruption and mismanagement” and promises to defund it.
Gavin Newsom: Yes. “I want to keep this thing going”—though he has acknowledged in the past that the project as originally envisioned may need to be scaled down.

Key Issues

Learn more about each issue by clicking on the icon below.

California Dream

California Dream

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 the 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 of for-profit charters, which lawmakers banned this year. Teachers’ unions are wary for other reasons: They divert resources and students away from traditional public schools and they are under no obligation to allow their teachers 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 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.

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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: The largest fire in state history in Mendocino. Entire neighborhoods in Redding turned to ash. Summer campers smoked out of Yosemite Valley. It would all seem unprecedented, were it not for the devastation last year. In 2017, 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. In response, the state’s firefighting agency spent a record amount and far in excess of its suppression budget. These fires are the result of bad luck, climate change, and years of drought. But some experts say the state must change policies that have allowed forests to grow too dense and private development to encroach too far into wild land. In the meantime, lawmakers are engaged in a debate over who ought to pick up the tab for all the destruction.

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: a 30-mile tunnel connecting the Sacramento River to the state’s southbound aqueducts. The project would be financed by water agencies and southern water users, rather than the state, but it remains unpopular in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. While policymakers puzzle over the tunnel, voters will consider an $8.9 billion ballot measure to revamp the state’s water infrastructure.

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—came out to 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 securing waivers from the Trump administration, and making up the difference would still demand an unprecedented tax hike, even if it would reduce medical expenses for many Californians. This year, lawmakers voted to put together a five-member council to write a full plan by 2021. 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 makes 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. Legislation that would have allowed undocumented senior and disabled immigrants to get coverage through the state’s Medi-Cal program died earlier this summer.

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 unwarranted 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.

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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.

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 will be on the November ballot as Prop 10.

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 earlier this year 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 revolves around the use of 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. This November, voters will decide if the state should borrow $4 billion to fund low-income-housing construction and discount home loans for vets (Prop 1).

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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 have put an end to 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 have historically used cash bail: the accused puts down a deposit up front and if they make to it court, they 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 have long argued that this system penalizes the poor, while allowing the well-off to purchase their freedom. This year state lawmakers took up the call and replaced bail with an alternative system that allows judges to either keep an arrestee in jail or send them home pre-trial depending 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. Lawmakers have banned 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.

Portable Prop 13: 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 proposition on the November ballot would expand the tax cut by allowing older and disabled homeowners to carry part of their low property tax assessment with them when they sell their home, making it less costly to move. Another proposed initiative that could be on the 2020 ballot would roll back part of Prop 13 by exempting commercial and industrial property owners, assessing their properties at current market value rather than their purchase price.

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.

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It’s been an eventful two years for California transportation. Last spring, the Legislature hiked the gas tax for the first time in decades. This year, voters may roll back that tax hike blowing a $5 billion hole in the budget. And the state’s high-speed rail project continues to inch forward—with an ever-growing price tag.

Gas tax: Last year, 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 will also have 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. 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 forward, or scrap it.


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