High-Visibility Tobacco Tax Initiative Receiving Lots of Attention, Money

SmokingSACRAMENTO – There’s broad agreement that the 17 initiatives on the statewide ballot on November 8 cover some of the most significant public-policy issues to come before voters in more than a decade. For instance, voters will have a chance to legalize marijuana, outlaw the death penalty, put an end to the state’s virtual ban on bilingual education, approve a broad gun-control package and reduce prison sentences for some non-violent felons.

But two months before the election, one of the highest-visibility measures also is fairly narrow in scope. Proposition 56 would raise California’s relatively low tobacco tax (relative to other states) by $2 a cigarette pack – and increase taxes by an equivalent amount on all other tobacco products (cigars, chewing tobacco, etc.). It also would significantly increase taxes on electronic cigarettes and vaping products. It has high visibility right now because of a series of advertisements opponents are running on radio stations across the state.

Supporters pitch the measure as a means primarily to boost public health. “An increase in the tobacco tax is an appropriate way to decrease tobacco use and mitigate the costs of health care treatment and improve existing programs providing for quality health care and access to health care services for families and children. It will save lives and save state and local government money in the future,” according to the initiative’s findings.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed into law a package of anti-tobacco bills that, among other things, raise the smoking age to 21. Studies of addiction show that teens who begin smoking are more likely to continue this dangerous habit throughout their lives. Backers of this initiative argue that raising the prices of cigarettes is another main way to dissuade people from smoking. And they point to the costs to the health system imposed by smokers.

But the measure’s opponents are focused increasingly on the spending aspects of the proposal. According to the official ballot argument against the measure, “Prop. 56 allocates just 13 percent of new tobacco tax money to treat smokers or stop kids from starting. If we are going to tax smokers another $1.4 billion per year, more should be dedicated to treating them and keeping kids from starting. Instead, most of the $1.4 billion in new taxes goes to health insurance companies and other wealthy special interests, instead of where it is needed.”

An analysis by the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office confirms that only a small percentage of the estimated $1.4 billion in new revenues are earmarked to such programs. The main priority of the new funds, based on the LAO analysis, is to “replace revenues lost due to lower consumption resulting from the excise tax increase.” That reinforces the odd conundrum faced by California and other states. They use tax and regulatory policies to promote public health by reducing smoking, but then struggle to find funds to pay for ongoing programs as the number of smokers – and therefore the number of tobacco-taxpayers – keeps falling.

The initiative then earmarks some funds to law enforcement, to University of California physician training, to the state auditor and to administration. But 82 percent of the remaining funds go to “increasing the level of payment” for health care related to Medi-Cal, the state’s health-care program for low-income people. Prop. 56 opponents therefore argue it’s designed mainly to benefit health-insurance companies and other interest groups – and includes few limits on how they spend the money they receive.

Furthermore, the initiative bypasses educational-funding requirements under Proposition 98, the 1988 initiative that now requires approximately 43 percent of state general-fund revenues to be directed to the public-school system. As the LAOexplained, “Proposition 56 amends the state Constitution to exempt the measure’s revenues and spending from the state’s constitutional spending limit. (This constitutional exemption is similar to ones already in place for prior, voter-approved increases in tobacco taxes.) This measure also exempts revenues from minimum funding requirements for education required under Proposition 98.”

It’s not unusual for a major tax hike measure to ignite controversies over how the new revenues will be spent. But there’s a serious question about whether this initiative will meet its health-improvement goals given the way the tax hammers a common product used by people to quit smoking.

In a research paper co-authored with my R Street Institute colleague Cameron Smith, we note the measure boosts excise taxes on vaping by 320 percent. The key, stated goal of the tobacco tax increase is to dissuade people from buying cigarettes. By the same logic then, the massive boost in taxes on e-cigarettes seems designed to dissuade people from using them.

Yet as Public Health England explained: “The comprehensive review of the evidence finds that almost all of the 2.6 million adults using e-cigarettes in Great Britain are current or ex-smokers, most of whom are using the devices to help them quit smoking or to prevent them going back to cigarettes.” That government health agency urges public-health officials to promote vaping as a way to improve public health. Some U.S. studies come to similar conclusions.

Proposition 56 backers argue that vaping hasn’t been proven safe and the devices haven’t been around long enough to know long-term health effects. They also fear teens will begin vaping and then move on to combustible cigarettes, which everyone agrees are dangerous. And they point to a recent University of Southern California study suggesting teens who vape are six times more likely to begin smoking cigarettes than teens who don’t vape.

In reality, the study seems mainly to reflect “the difference between teens inclined to experiment and teens not so inclined,” according to a public-health expert we quoted. Furthermore, the e-cigarette industry doesn’t claim vaping is safe – they say it is a safer alternative to cigarette smoking. Research suggests they are about 95 percent safer.

California has the second-lowest smoking rate in the nation at around 12 percent. Only Utah has a lower percentage of smokers. So Proposition 56 doesn’t effect a broad swath of the public – but it is a contentious measure given questions about where the tax dollars will go and about its heavy-handed treatment toward vaping. Compared to many of the other initiatives on the ballot, this one might seem simple, but it’s about far more than whether the state government should boost taxes on a pack of cigarettes by two dollars.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He is based in Sacramento. Write to him at [email protected]

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

CalPERS Could Get Hands on Billions in Private-Sector Retirement Funds

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

Instead of addressing the estimated $600 billion in unfunded liabilities in California’s beleaguered public-employee pension system, Democrats in Sacramento have instead decided to “solve” a growing pension crisis in the private sector. In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed a measure that created an investment board and authorized a “feasibility study” of various options for a state-backed private-pension system. That study came out last month, and the legislature is now vetting bills that would put its recommendations into action.

The plans under consideration would mandate participation in the new state-run retirement system for firms with five or more workers, though the workers themselves could opt out. Employers that don’t comply would face fines and other penalties. They would automatically deduct 3 percent to 5 percent of each employee’s earnings (the exact percentage is not yet determined) and deposit the money in an IRA, likely managed by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS)—the same union-controlled government entity that uses its investment muscle to promote liberal causes. Unlike the public-employee pension plans (or even Social Security), however, the envisioned private-pension system is a 401(k)-style, defined-contribution plan. It could not accumulate unfunded liabilities, at least in its current design.

After winning assurances that firms won’t be liable for any losses, the state’s business community has stayed mostly neutral on the scheme. A state senate analysis in support of the bill points to a genuine problem. “Today, due to inadequate retirement savings, nearly 50 percent of middle-income California workers will face living in or near poverty during their senior years,” it says. Social Security is inadequate, and more than 7 million private-sector workers “do not have access to a retirement savings plan through their jobs.”

The obvious rebuttals: workers do have access to such plans in the private sector, and it’s not the government’s job to create such a program. Low-income earners might not be thrilled to see their paychecks decline by 5 percent if the new proposal takes effect. Additionally, employers would face unexpected costs and red tape. The plan would almost certainly lead private employers with their own pension programs to dump their workers onto the new state system. And a government-administered pension system would likely crowd out private companies that manage and sell 401(k) investments.

The state’s public-sector unions backed Brown’s bill. As it turns out, union-friendly politicians hatched the private-sector pension plan a few years ago as a way to deflect attention from the public system’s massive unfunded liabilities. The idea was to give private-sector workers some modest benefit as a way to dampen public support for pension reforms.

Union members’ pensions are enormous. Public-safety officials in California typically receive the “3 percent at 50” formula, which means they (and their spouses) are guaranteed 3 percent of their income multiplied by the number of years worked, available at age 50, which translates to 90 percent of their final years’ pay after 30 years. And that’s before myriad pension-spiking gimmicks. Other public employees often receive formulas that guarantee 80 percent or more of their final pay, which is quite generous. The state’s $100,000 Pension Club is expanding rapidly for precisely that reason. Recently, the San Jose Mercury News reported on Alameda County’s top bureaucrat retiring with a $500,000 annual pension.

Should California go ahead and put the new system into place, and see positive results, expect political pressure to build to expand it into a bigger program—one that could eventually put taxpayers on the hook. Would you trust this crowd to solve any pension crisis?

Phony cost estimates unlikely to stop bullet train’s momentum

Photo courtesy of Jon Curnow, flickr

Photo courtesy of Jon Curnow, flickr

San Francisco’s colorful former mayor Willie Brown caused a stir three years ago by writing some disturbing truths about major government infrastructure projects. The city’s Transbay Terminal project—billed as a future “Grand Central Station of the West”—was running $300 million over budget. Brown argued that no one should be shocked by such overruns, and that “we always knew” the estimate was artificially low. “In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment,” he wrote. “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

Brown’s column was—and still is—widely quoted because California officials are busy advancing the largest infrastructure project ever built by the state. The California High Speed Rail project, energized by a statewide ballot initiative in 2008 that provided initial bond funding of $9.95 billion, seems to be exactly the kind of project Brown had in mind.

In terms of pricing and design, the current project bears little resemblance to the detailed promises made in Proposition 1A. The original price tag was less than $40 billion but quickly ballooned to $118 billion. Governor Jerry Brown ratcheted the number down to $64 billion—not that any number really means anything at this point. To get these proposed costs down, rail backers had to void one of the project’s core promises: that the train would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco (via the San Joaquin Valley) in two hours and 40 minutes. The updated plan requires “bullet” trains to share commuter tracks in the two main congested metropolitan areas, slowing travel time significantly.

The latest draft business plan, released last month, offers a reality check for anyone who thinks that the $64 billion price tag is even close to accurate. The rail authority had planned to break ground in Fresno and build tracks to the Los Angeles basin, but getting from the valley into Southern California means going over or under the Tehachapi Mountains, a large and geologically complex barrier. “[P]roject engineers are now analyzing solutions critics say could break the project’s budget or, just as bad, add too much travel time,” the Bakersfield Californian reported in 2014. “None of this is a deal-breaker, a spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority said. She declined to go into details but insisted the agency will present a refined route over the Tehachapis.”

Instead of a refined route, the authority has decided to skip Southern California for now, and first take the much easier—and less costly—route to San Jose. Opponents have pinned their hopes on a legal challenge. But the same Sacramento Superior Court judge who previously found that the project had violated funding-related terms of Prop. 1A (but was later overruled) gave the project the green light in early March.

Willie Brown would understand. The goal is to get started and worry about the costs and details later. If Californians really knew the cost, nothing would get built. Unfortunately, when financial and other commandments are nothing more than suggestions, anything can get built. And the public can’t do much about it.

Carl’s Jr. Latest Company to Ditch California

After the 2013 death of the founder of Carl’s Jr. — the ubiquitous California fast-food restaurant chain — the Orange County Register published an obituary that captured the one-time spirit of the state: “Carl Karcher, the Ohio farm boy with an eighth-grade education who turned his $326 investment in a hot dog stand into a multimillion-dollar fast food empire, died Friday afternoon. He was 90.” For decades, this was a place where anyone could earn a fortune.

Carl's_Jr._DentonEarlier this week, Carl’s Jr.’s parent company (CKE Restaurants) announced it would relocate from Ventura County to Nashville, Tennessee. The company issued a bland statement. It is “re-franchising” many of its company-owned locations. “As such, early next year we will be consolidating our Carpinteria and St. Louis corporate offices in Nashville, which is centrally located and is one of the markets where we have retained company-owned restaurants.”

In 2011, I reported on a California Chamber of Commerce event, where CKE Chief Executive Officer Andrew Puzder “complained about the permitting process here, where it takes eight months to two years to open a new restaurant compared to an average of 1 1/2 months in Texas.” Then there are all those lawsuits, and work rules that force companies to pay overtime based on daily, rather than weekly, hours. He was mulling a move to Texas then.

Granted, CKE is moving its headquarters, not its restaurants. But the point is well-taken. There is a cottage industry here that denies industrial-era work rules and a maddening regulatory process make any difference to business owners. The idea that there’s a business exodus is just right-wing nonsense, they insist, and they point to research purportedly showing that businesses aren’t really leaving.

Not many big brick-and-mortar businesses shut down and rebuild elsewhere. But companies do shift operations, build their new plants in other states, or just never get started. Corporate types don’t like to blame state officials publicly — that invites pushback. But at one business-closing press event I attended in a Los Angeles area industrial park, departing owners compared notes about the best places to move outside of California.

However much CEOs would rather live in Malibu than Fort Worth, Texas, they’re not usually apt to actually build a manufacturing plant in Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, despite what liberal economists and reporters might argue.

One widely discussed 2014 article suggested that higher tax rates are, the harder we all will work. “Some research into tax rates indicates that high rates have the opposite effect: People may work harder, trying to make more money to achieve a desired after-tax income and may slough off if tax rates are lowered,” wrote David Cay Johnston in the Sacramento Bee. Work makes us free, I suppose.

“California proves every day that conservative economic theories are s[–]t. Every. Single. Day,” wrote the left-wing Daily Kos, noting that California grows even though it ranks at the bottom of business-climate surveys. I give Kos credit for using a word often ignored: despite. California remains a global economic leader “despite its high cost of living, taxes and regulations,” he added. But imagine the growth if it had a sane economic policy.

That high cost of living, by the way, is largely the result of government land-use restrictions that artificially drive up the cost of developable land. It’s also why California has the highest poverty rate in the nation under the U.S. Census Bureau’s new formula. You’d think folks who claim to care about the poor might think more deeply about this.

A recent study found about 10,000 California businesses “disinvested” in the state over seven years, meaning they moved, closed down, or shifted jobs out of state. Business researcher Joseph Vranich relied on public records. His report includes a long list of companies and what happened to them. He only included “disinvestments” clearly tied to the business climate.

Officials react as Gov. Jerry Brown did when former Texas Gov. Rick Perry ran an ad campaign luring businesses to the Lone Star State. “It’s not a serious story, guys,” Brown said during a speech. “It’s not a burp. It’s barely a fart.” Vranich’s report was a response to Brown’s “business czar,” who in 2012 said: “[T]here is no data anywhere where you can find numbers of companies that have either entered or left this state. It’s just not kept … so there is no justification for the statement that there is this mass exodus from the state of California.”

The resulting data was voluminous. But it was barely a burp in the state Capitol. Currently, the only point of contention is between the Democratic governor and the Democratic Legislature. They both want to spend more on programs, but the former wants to be sure to have enough cash when there’s an eventual recession. The November election is likely to see union-backed voter initiatives to raise taxes and spend more. How can they hurt, given we’ll all be good oxen and pull harder?

This week, legislators are introducing a bill to allow independent contractors to collectively bargain (through a new type of association) with Uber and other companies in the sharing economy. Brown and legislators often point to Silicon Valley’s enduring growth as evidence that California remains an economic hub. Yet this looks like a direct assault on the Golden State’s golden-egg-laying goose, not that state leaders will get it.

They can argue high taxes, regulation, and unionization are good for the economy. But if you were an Ohio farm boy today with $300 in your pocket, would you try to make your fortune in California or, say, Tennessee?

Steven Greenhut is a senior fellow and Western region director for the R Street Institute. He is based in Sacramento.

This piece was originally published by The American Spectator

Poverty plan offers a wealth of bad ideas

As reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune:

— As legislators return to the Capitol in January, there’s little question the issue of poverty will be high on the agenda. Legislative Democrats have been dismayed that the governor held the line on new social-welfare spending last session and are eager to step up public funding for new and existing programs. And news reports suggest a major new anti-poverty initiative, backed by some charitable organizations, already is garnering serious donations.

Expect poverty to be “big” this year. Even legislative Republicans haven’t resisted too much. They’ve generally been OK with new spending proposals – provided they’re funded without raising taxes. We’ll have to wait and see any specifics from legislators, but we already know the details of the so-called “Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Act.” It’s likely to spark a spirited debate during the November 2016 election season given the size of the tax increase it would impose on property owners.

That initiative is one of several possible tax-hike intiatives on the ballot, and proponents appear ready to start collecting signatures. It would impose what supporters call “a sensible and fair surcharge on properties with values of over $3 million” that keeps “all Proposition 13 property tax protections against reassessments … in place.”

The resulting cash flow – between …

Click here to read the full article

Stockton’s Pension Struggles Offer Lessons for California

StocktonIt was an official document, circulated by former Republican Assemblyman and Board of Equalization member Dean Andal, who is well respected for his understanding of fiscal matters. The city pooh-poohed the suggestion, and provided its own economic analysis, although it refused to share the detailed data with the media or the public.

The bad news was easy to believe. Stockton’s bankruptcy exit plan didn’t address the fiscal elephant in City Hall (unfunded pension liabilities). The city was following the basic route taken by the Bay Area city of Vallejo, which also went bankrupt and soon again faced deep fiscal problems.

The crux of Stockton’s plan was a voter-approved tax and spending plan. Measure A raised the city’s sales tax by three-quarters of a cent. Measure B was an advisory vote for how the money would be spent. The tax-hike campaign promised significant new spending on popular programs, especially law enforcement in that crime-plagued city. Voters approved the measures.

Now, after collecting the tax for 15 months, the data seems to confirm what Andal had been saying. “After only one full budget year, the city has already broken three fundamental promises and is destined to return to insolvency within four years,” wrote Andal in a letter this month to supporters and opponents of the 2013 ballot measures.

First, the city promised to hire 120 net new police officers over three years, with 40 new officers hired by last July. The city hired only 13 new officers so far. Second, the city promised the new sales-tax measure would raise $29.5 million by July, but fell $1.4 million short. Third, the “plan of adjustment” expected its pension payments to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System to be nearly $23 million – but the actual costs were $23.7 million higher.

The Stockton situation is of statewide importance because it’s clear the state’s unfunded pension liability crisis has not gone away even in relatively good economic times. “All these budget problems show up at the service level,” Andal told me. He says Stockton faces “service insolvency,”  i.e., a budget so troubled the city cannot provide adequate levels of public services.

Stockton spent $38 million in legal fees in a nationally watched bankruptcy proceeding. Judge Christopher Klein ruled that cities could cut pension benefits in bankruptcy. Stockton officials chose not to do so, relying instead on other cuts and sales-tax increase. Now that their numbers might not be adding up, it puts the city in a difficult position, Andal argues, given it already has the highest sales tax allowed by law, the highest utility tax in the Central Valley and some of the highest developer fees.

Other cities will likewise find limited ability to raise new revenues as CalPERS continues its plan to ramp up its bill for cities that participate in its pension plan. Yet Sacramento officials act as if the pension problem is gone. There’s hardly an issue legislators didn’t try to address in the recently concluded legislative session, yet nothing of substance to deal with growing pension debts. The good-government group California Common Sense confirms that the state’s unfunded pension liabilities continue to show a pattern of steady increases.

Pension reformers led by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego city councilman Carl DeMaio have proposed a statewide measure that would subject most local pension increases to voter approval. They say the title and summary Attorney General Kamala Harris offered for that measure includes the same union-backed poison pill (claiming the initiative undermines constitutional benefit protections) she used for previous pension reform measures. They plan take the matter to court.

So nothing much has changed at the statewide level, with the state political establishment squelching reform. Sadly, it might take another economic downturn to get Sacramento officials to check out the problems in a city just 50 miles from the Capitol.

Originally published by Reason.com

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego.

Cutting Taxes One Diaper at a Time

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

 — Some prominent California legislators are trying to jump-start a “conversation” about raising (or extending) taxes, which is how Sacramento politicians often set the stage for potentially unpopular policies. Meanwhile, two San Diego-area legislators are pushing for something that doesn’t often get discussed in the Capitol: tax cuts.

The proposal is modest, but is interesting because the politicians co-sponsoring the legislation come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, doesn’t often team up with Republican Sen. Joel Anderson of El Cajon, but find themselves simpatico when it comes to taxing diapers.

Last year, Gonzalez proposed an $80 monthly (per infant) diaper subsidy to families on welfare. She said poor parents could barely afford this necessary product — and a state subsidy would help people get jobs given that child-care centers usually require parents to provide diapers. The bill ultimately was killed given its $119 million price tag.

This year, she’s still focused on diapers, but is taking a different approach. …

Read the full story here

The Formidable Jerry Brown

The national Republican Party may be fortunate that California governor Jerry Brown is probably too old to run for president. One needn’t be a fan of Brown’s policies to recognize that, in his fourth and final term, the governor formerly known as “Moonbeam” is displaying a level of political skill that could be hard to beat. True, he had a long record of saying some rather radical stuff on his syndicated “We the People” radio show back in the 1990s. He’s proud of his tax-raising efforts and is committed to dubious and expensive environmental policies. Yet, he is warmly received not only by the state’s Democratic establishment, but also by many Republicans.

As a columnist in Sacramento, I’m always surprised at the nice things said about Brown — even off the record. Republicans see him as the most “conservative” elected official with any power in the state capitol and their last line of defense. Democrats credit him for hauling the state out of its deep fiscal mess. They get frustrated the governor isn’t as eager to create new social programs as they are—but they still get 90 percent of what they want from him.

If anyone doubts Brown’s approach, look no further than the budget he introduced on January 9. The $164.7 billion proposal for Fiscal Year 2015–16 takes state spending to record levels. He’s provided no check on the vast increase in the Medi-Cal program, which would expand from 7.9 million recipients to 12.2 million—roughly a third of the state’s residents—in three years. He talks a good game about fixing the state’sunderfunded pension systems and unfunded health-care liabilities, but the reforms he touts do little except kick the can down the road. He seems more interested in protecting union priorities than taking on his core constituency.

The high-speed rail system Brown embraces would cost $68 billion (based on extremely conservative state estimates) to create a transportation option that would be outdated and unnecessary by the time it comes on line—assuming it ever does, given the lack of funding streams. His plan to build twin tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is another legacy-building project with a huge price tag but without the promise of delivering more water to the Southland.

Brown spent his first two terms from 1975 to 1983 halting the kind of infrastructure projects the state needed to meet a growing population. Now, he’s channeling the spirit of his father, Governor Pat Brown, who 50 years ago bequeathed California with a modern highway and water system. The state needs better roads and water storage, which the current governor supports—but he is more interested in projects that fight global warming. Indeed, his global-warming approach could stunt the state’s economic growth and will certainly hobble its competitiveness. In his January 5 inaugural speech, Brown called for policies that would slash the state’s reliance on petroleum-based fuels by 50 percent and boost the percentage of the state’s electricity generation from renewable sources from 30 percent to 50 percent.

California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (signed byArnold Schwarzenegger, but embraced by Brown) is significantly raising electricity and fuel costs, hiking taxes for manufacturers and leading to aggressive land-use restrictions that drive up housing costs—especially in the state’s already expensive big-city housing markets. He has downplayed legitimate concerns about the state’s oppressive tax and regulatory climate.

When Brown returned to the governor’s office in 2010, California faced budget deficits upward of $26 billion. Brown led the campaign in 2012 for Proposition 30, which imposed large income- and sales-tax increases. Combined with a recovering stock market—California’s tax system depends heavily on capital gains—the result was a balanced general-fund budget (provided you don’t look too closely, or count underfunded liabilities). Still, by Sacramento standards he’s holding the spending line and at least putting liability issues on the table.

To his credit, Brown insists that the Prop. 30 tax increases remain temporary. In his budget, he refuses to create new social programs and reminds legislators that, in California, deep deficits almost always follow balanced budgets. He axed the state’s redevelopment agencies, which doled out corporate welfare, though he signed into law a new, less troublesome type of replacement agency. He uses conservative language when talking about poverty, noting that California’s safety net is generous and arguing that the poor should acquire the skills to get good jobs. Such an approach—even if mostly rhetorical—buys him widespread bipartisan support.

“Brown has delivered a very consistent message to the state’s business community over the last four years: ‘I might not be your best friend, but around here I’m the best friend you’ve got,’” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican consultant and professor at the University of Southern California. “He has held the line against more ambitious spending from the Democrats in the legislature, which allows him to balance a rightward lean on budget matters with a more liberal approach to environmental and public safety issues. He got both sides to sign on to his water bond and rainy day fund, which might not leave him precisely on the 50 yard line, but certainly to the right of most legislative Democrats and the left of most Republicans.”

That explains why pension reformers, the business community, and taxpayer groups are relatively comfortable with the governor. Everyone seems to like him, which might have more to do with his personality and intellectual curiosity than anything else. He gets a pass on some of his wilder views because people understand he likes to toss around ideas. At press conferences, Brown directly answers questions (rather than sticking to talking points) and goes off on entertaining tangents about philosophers and historical figures. At a press event in Sacramento, the governor came up to me, mentioned something I’d written, then fumbled around his cell phone to give me the name of an author he thought I should read. Other reporters and politicians tell similar stories. From an authenticity standpoint, what’s not to like?

“He’s not an embarrassment like his predecessor,” said Grant Gillham, a political consultant and former Republican staffer. “Unlike Schwarzenegger, he’s not hamming it up for the cameras, or making stupid ‘girly-man’ jokes. . . . He’s got a Jesuit’s education, but a Franciscan’s behavior. After the last several clown acts, we’re all better for it.”