The Audacity of Austerity

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"We cannot afford what's going on here."

That comment, one of many over the course of a half hour long interview, seems to exemplify the real core of Meg Whitman's campaign for governor -- a campaign that will go down in the record books as the priciest premiere into the rough and tumble world of California politics.

We spoke in a small dressing room just behind the stage of Roseville's Tower Theater, a few minutes before Whitman's town hall event on Monday. The interview was the final in my extended conversation with the three major candidates for governor, and a six-minute excerpt aired this morning on The California Report.

At the bottom of this posting, you can hear the entire question-and-answer session; you can click here for archived audio from the other candidates.

The executive turned politician was friendly and engaged as I asked her questions about everything from her plan to trim the state workforce to her endorsement by former Vice President Dick Cheney. Campaign warriors will no doubt jeer that I didn't grill her more about her personal finances or the many years she failed to vote in elections. We did talk politics, but mostly we talked about policy ideas -- the kind of stuff that TV ads and horse race political coverage shies away from.

What emerged was a candidate who seemingly refuses to believe that government can't be run better, more logically. The conversation also led me to believe that should she win the primary and go on to victory in November, Meg Whitman will find that a governor is less CEO and more air traffic controller... and even then, one who's sometimes ignored by everyone.

To the issues...

Didn't We Try This Already? When Whitman lamented how badly "professional politicians" have screwed up Sacramento, I reminded her that the guy she's seeking to replace was also an outsider touting a common sense, business approach. And it sparked what sounded like the strongest comments to date about Arnold Schwarzenegger: "The fact is, he was an actor and he was an investor. He'd never run a large organization, he'd never rooted out waste and fraud, he'd never utilized technology to do more with less." The candidate also threw a punch when asked about Schwarzenegger's newly revised budget. "The hard work has not been done," she said. "He has not taken up the real work that needs to be done to solve this budget crisis."

Welfare & Kids: Whitman's new messaging about reform of the welfare-to-work program CalWORKS is red meat stuff for a GOP primary. But lamenting how few recipients work and demanding much more ignores a central fact, recently brought to light by the nonprofit California Budget Project: 78% of the state's recipients are kids. Her response: "Handing the benefit checks to the parents to take care of the kids, even when the parents are not in compliance, is not the right thing to do."

Schools Need More Money? Not Exactly: Whitman repeated her campaign message that "only 60%" of all the money spent on K-12 schools goes into the classroom. That's drawn the ire of education groups like the California School Boards Association, which says that much of the money the candidate says is spent on "bureaucracy" is actually spent on things like guidance and counseling, libraries, and beyond. Whitman still says more money should be spent in the classroom, but more existing dollars; she does not believe schools are underfunded, even after the recent budget cuts, and says teachers have told her it's more about redirecting the cash.

$3 Billion In State Worker Savings: Her policy pamphlet makes a claim that I wanted to have her explain, but it actually took a follow up conversation with Whitman's top policy guru to understand her position -- that trimming 40,000 existing state jobs will translate into a savings of $3 billion a year. First of all, I asked whether she knew that data shows the growth in jobs over the last few years she often laments has been driven by new hires in prisons and higher education. "Virtually every department has added people," countered Whitman. And though other data shows California with a low per capita number of state workers, Whitman says we can do better. "Big states should be able to actually leverage scale," she said. And if, in fact, many of the new jobs are in higher ed, Whitman says she'd ask the UC and CSU systems how "to do more for less." Back to the $3 billion promised savings: while Whitman said in our interview (and says in her brochure) that it's an annual savings, that's only in years after the job cuts have been fully realized. The campaign says it might take four years to shrink the state workforce through attrition; before that time, the savings would be less. And by the way, $3 billion is calculated by taking an 'average' salary of $65,000, adding the cost of benefits, and multiplying by 40,000.

We also talked about government worker pension reform, where she outlined a two-tiered system... a more traditional pension for future public safety workers, but a system more like private sector 401(k) benefits for other rank-and-file workers.

Amnesty: Whitman and her rival Steve Poizner have been duking it out on illegal immigration and "amnesty" for weeks. But given that term has become so contentious, I asked the candidate to define it. "Amnesty is when you don't face any consequences at all for having broken the law," she said. And does she support the bipartisan Schumer-Graham proposal unveiled weeks ago in Washington, DC that requires fines, mandatory English classes, and more? "Until we can convince the American people that we can secure the border," said Whitman, "I don't think the American people are willing to talk about any of those proposals."

For more, including a brief discussion of the Goldman Sachs brouhaha, her business career, the question about Cheney, and more, click below to hear the entire interview.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • EarlRichards

    Chevron gouged $24 billions in excessive profits in 2008, as per http://www.tyrannyofoil.com. Schwarzenegger should put an excessive profits tax on these profits , instead of protecting the oil corporations from fair taxation, then, there would be sufficient public funds for all the vulnerable, people programs. Big business lost the fight to eliminate domestic violence funding, so now they are coming back with a vengeance. There is no funding provision for battered women shelters in the May Revise. Schwarzee picks on the most vulnerable, and not on corporate tax “deadbeats.”

  • charles adame

    the only waste, fraud and abuse going on here is the fleecing of whitman’s considerable fortune, although the amount spent is merely spittle in a bucket considering her wealth, her campaign consultants are laughing all the way to the bank.