Seize the day, California!

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With the coronavirus pandemic touching every aspect of life in the Golden State, Zocalo Public Square commentator Joe Mathews says it’s a good time to take stock. As COVID creates the need for more government spending, our complex budget formulas will produce spending cuts in other areas. Mathews says the crisis has underscored our inability to plan for the future, on everything from housing and healthcare to schools and taxes. But it’s also providing an opportunity for comprehensive reform. Mathews says this is no time to be timid.

Read Joe Mathew's Connecting California column below:

Coronavirus is forcing Californians into isolation. But it has brought us together in one way: by fusing our biggest problems into one colossal crisis.

That crisis could be our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the state—if we can ignore the conventional wisdom that this is a time to shelter our ambitions in place.

COVID-19 is a crisis of crises, merging failures that we usually consider separately—housing, energy, poverty, prisons, courts, schools, climate, healthcare, pensions, taxes and budgets—but are actually rooted in the same flaw: California’s inability to invest in the future.

The Golden State loves making big promises, but resists delivering on them. In healthcare, COVID reminds us that the state has massively expanded health insurance without producing enough personnel and facilities to provide timely, effective healthcare. In housing, the same California leaders who require us to stay home preside over a massive housing shortage. Our elected officials pose as champions of the poor and children, even as COVID-19 worsens our high childhood poverty rate and forces the closure of schools, which have switched to ill-considered online learning models that leave poor students behind.

COVID exposes our failures in workforce—from our lack of skilled laboratory technicians to our lack of healthy farmworkers. And when warmer temperatures bring wildfires during the pandemic, massive power shut-offs could cripple our efforts to work from home.

All of the above crises were nearly impossible to solve because of the state’s weak systems for budgeting, taxation, and pensions. Now COVID-19 puts those systems under unbearable pressures. As COVID creates the need for more government outlays, our byzantine budget formulas will produce spending cuts. And the stock market crashes could collapse our badly underfunded pension systems— requiring a bailout we couldn’t afford even before COVID.

As bad as all this sounds, another thing is even worse: the timid response that California now plans to this mega-crisis. Gov. Gavin Newsom  has junked his ambitious January budget proposal in favor of a “shelter-in-place” budget. Such an approach reflects the tired Sacramento conventional wisdom that  the wise path in crisis is to scale back and limit the damage.

That conventional wisdom is—to use a technocratic term—totally nutso.

Cutbacks now will worsen all our existing problems and crises, and make recovery from COVID that much harder. That’s what happened in the Great Recession, when big budget cuts created lasting some of today’s crises in housing and infrastructure.

This time, let’s try something new: ramp up the state like never before, and tackle all our crises.

The timing is right. The state of emergency gives Gov. Newsom extraordinary power and flexibility. And the housing, infrastructure or school programs that are too expensive in boom times are suddenly more affordable.

So let’s make permanent the temporary COVID expansion of healthcare  and homeless housing. Sweep away regulations that limit housing construction and business growth. Increase school budgets by 50 percent to close achievements gaps. And rebuild our infrastructure.

How to pay this? In every way possible. Change the tax system to produce more revenue with less volatility, eliminate budget formulas so that money can be moved around, and scale back unsustainable retiree benefits for public workers. Californians will also need more federal funds, and we should unabashedly borrow tens of billions of dollars at today’s low rates. Yes, those bills will come due, but if  California uses this moment to strengthen itself, we’ll be better able to handle those debts.

What I’m proposing is a big bet on California’s future. But it’s hardly reckless. Buying low is a proven investment strategy. It’s also the moral response to this extraordinary moment. Millions of Californians are losing jobs. Thousands are dying. Is it right to respond to these sacrifices by deepening existing crises, and diminishing our future?

Instead, let’s put the state on a higher plane. Let’s go all in, California. Right now.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Joe Mathews