Focus on universal health care and free community college. Forget high-speed rail.
That’s the message from Californians for incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom, according to a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.
The Democratic lieutenant governor won an overwhelming victory in the November election and is preparing to take office next month with a policy agenda full of ambitious, and expensive, items. With state coffers booming from a strong economy, the PPIC survey asked respondents how important it was to them that Newsom pursue a handful of the major issues he mentioned on the campaign trail.
Sixty percent of California adults said universal health coverage, one of Newsom’s biggest campaign promises, should be a very high or high priority, while 53 percent said the same of eliminating tuition for community college.
Universal preschool, an idea that dominated Newsom’s final days on the campaign trail, was a very high or high priority for just under half of California adults. Only a quarter considered building a high-speed rail system a very high or high priority.
Several of those policies are among than more than $40 billion in new spending that lawmakers have already proposed since the new legislative session began earlier this month.
One bill to expand health care access by allowing adults living in the country illegally to sign up for Medi-Cal, California’s health insurance program for the poor, would cost about $3 billion annually. A plan to enroll more toddlers in subsidized preschool would cost an estimated $1.3 billion over the next three years. Providing the first year of community college free for first-time, full-time students cost the state about $46 million this year.
Meanwhile, the expected price tag for building a high-speed rail system from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles has ballooned to more than $77 billion, without financing fully secured. Newsom has openly considered scaling back the initial end point from Los Angeles to the Central Valley, while Republicans are calling to cancel the project completely.
Tackling all of those items with a budget surplus expected to be $15 billion next year is, obviously, impossible. Newsom told The Bee last week that legislators would have to “whittle down” their requests so that “we all live within our means.”
““We’re not going to deviate from being fiscally prudent,” Newsom said, nodding to outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown, who has emphasized restraint over new spending as he helped steer the state through the economic recession and back to a balanced budget. One of Brown’s signature accomplishments was the creation of a rainy-day fund that now holds about $14 billion in reserve.
But PPIC found that’s not what Californians want: 57 percent said the state should use its budget surplus to increase funding for education or health and human services, while only 21 percent wanted to put that money toward paying down debt and building up reserves. Another 16 percent prioritized one-time spending on transportation, water and infrastructure projects.
Nearly half of California adults, 48 percent, want Newsom to chart a different path from Brown, whereas only a third, 35 percent, want him to continue in Brown’s footsteps. That flips with Democrats, who would prefer Newsom to carry on Brown’s policies, 47 percent to 37 percent.
Brown, however, will leave office a popular governor, with 51 percent of Californians approving of his job performance compared to 31 percent who disapprove.