George Will

Big problems, bigger ideas

SANTA MONICA, Calif.

California's campaigns introduce candidates not only to the state's voters but to its immensity. In Bakersfield, Meg Whitman, 52, the former CEO of eBay who is campaigning for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nomination, learned about carrots.

In 1968, the Grimm brothers were selling vegetables at a roadside stand in Anaheim. They moved to Bakersfield and today Grimmway Farms and one rival provide 80 percent of the nation's carrots, partly because the brothers figured out how to make the vegetables pleasingly uniform in shape.

Who knew? Whitman didn't, and the story, which she tells enthusiastically and at length, delights her because it confirms her conviction that California "was built by intellectual capital," and not just the Hollywood and Silicon Valley sort.

California's cascading crises prefigure America's future unless Washington reverses the growth of government subservient to organized labor. The state cannot pay its bills, poorly educates its young, and its taxation punishes whatever success that its suffocating regulatory regime does not prevent.

Whitman, a Roman candle of facts and ideas, insists, "We do not have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem of epic proportions." Twenty-five percent of California's revenues come from income taxes paid by the 144,000 richest taxpayers, so "if one of them leaves, it's a really bad thing." Lots have left. Some never really arrive. Pierre Omidyar, after founding eBay in San Jose, resided in Nevada, which has no income tax.

Whitman says 50 percent of California's spending on education, grades K through 12, goes into overhead, not classrooms, compared to 20 percent in, for example, Connecticut. The public education lobby likes it that way, but because California elementary school students rank 46th among the states in math, 48th in reading, 49th in science, it is, Whitman says tersely, hard for defenders of the status quo to "hide behind the results."

She endorses a convention to revise California's Constitution, which was written in 1879 and has been amended 518 times. She would reduce the number of state Assembly districts (there are 80) because the Legislature is cumbersome, and would modify the initiative and referendum process.

Voters have discombobulated budgeting by mandating spending without providing revenues, other than promiscuous borrowing. Whitman favors making it harder to get measures on ballots, limiting the number on ballots in particular elections, and requiring the ballot language to specify the costs of measures being voted on.

She emphatically opposes a change that many proponents of a new Constitution favor — eliminating the requirement of a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature to pass a budget or raise taxes. Without those provisions, "taxes would be so high we might not have a state left." Today's most pressing problem — government in the grip of public employees unions — is, she thinks, ripe for improvement: 85 percent of the state's unionized employees are working without contracts.

Because California is second among the states only to Wisconsin in Internet connectivity, she hopes to directly arouse the state for challenges such as modernizing the water storage and delivery system that was designed for a California with half today's population.

"There is," she says, "plenty of water in California — we can't get it from where it is to where it is needed." The result, partly because of aggressive environmentalism, is "a slow-motion Katrina" in some Central Valley towns where unemployment is above 40 percent.

Whitman, like her rivals for the nomination (state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, another Silicon Valley success, and former Rep. Tom Campbell), is prochoice. That normally is a problem with a significant portion of the Republican nominating electorate, but the collapse of California's once-characteristic confidence has concentrated minds on other things.

Because legislators feel validated by volume, the Legislature is, she says, a "bill machine." She vows to wield the veto power as vigorously as did Republican Govs. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, who cast 1,890 and 2,298, vetoes respectively. The current calamitous governor wanted, as movie stars do, to be loved, but Whitman says, "Getting elected is a popularity contest. Governing is the opposite."

Although California is a blue state, it has had Republican governors for 30 of the last 43 years. The Republican revival nationally might begin here next year.

George Will's e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.

© Washington Post Writers Group

Big problems, bigger ideas 07/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 6, 2009 12:56am]

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