Who is the most powerful governor in California history?
The next one.
Our state’s governorship has grown so great in reach and power that it now constitutes a second American presidency. California governors sign international treaties and agreements. They head a state government that effectively operates as a fourth branch of American government – wielding regulations, lawsuits and the size of the California market to check the president, Congress and even the courts.
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Here at home, our governors dominate not only politics and policy but also California’s civic conversation. Centralized executive power contrasts with the state’s image as complex and diverse, with a progressive culture and innovative technology bent on disrupting existing structures.
But this diversity and complexity – and the resulting frustration about getting anything done – is at the heart of the governor’s power. Precisely because it’s so hard to get attention and to orchestrate policy among so many unruly constituencies, Californians are often desperate to find someone – anyone – who can make a decision and accomplish what they want. And that person is usually the governor.
For the past 40 years, the governor’s authority has grown as power was transferred from local governments to Sacramento through state court decisions (notably, equalizing school funding) and ballot initiatives (such as Proposition 13, which restricted local taxation).
As Sacramento made more decisions for Californians, governors boosted their power. Pete Wilson pioneered the use of executive orders for vital policy changes. Gray Davis devised aggressive strategies to intervene in the legislative process, declaring of legislators: “Their job is to implement my vision.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger backed ballot initiative campaigns to give himself greater leverage with the Legislature. He also pushed through climate change legislation that empowers the state’s regulatory agencies to enforce one of the most complicated environmental regimes on earth.
Gov. Jerry Brown, in pursuing policy objectives, also has gained more authority. For example, the state’s new law to establish a $15 minimum wage by 2022 gives the governor the power to delay the hike for different reasons.
Meanwhile, voters have repeatedly weakened the Legislature, most dramatically by imposing term limits in 1990. Lawmakers and staffs thus became temporary workers, whereas in the executive branch, the governor could rely on department heads and regulators with long careers and inside knowledge.
The Legislature has failed to counter such executive power. It has little time for detailed hearings, investigations or oversight of the governor and his administration. When legislators make laws and pass budgets, they often rely on the executive branch’s numbers.
Recent political reforms also have targeted the Legislature, thus favoring the governor. In 2008, voters stripped legislators of the power to draw legislative districts and gave it to an independent commission. In 2010, voters got rid of the requirement of a two-thirds vote to pass a budget, which had given the minority party in the Legislature considerable power to challenge the governor. In today’s era of Democratic control, the governor no longer faces a real opposition.
California’s diminished media also reinforces the governor’s singular position. With fewer reporters covering Sacramento, the governor has become the only politician who is covered regularly. Kevin de León, the state’s most influential legislator of this decade, remains little-known statewide.
Many in Sacramento see the more powerful governorship as a positive. In a state so big, goes the argument, it’s good to have one elected official who can focus attention and accountability. Of course, that’s only true if Californians pick governors who use that power responsibly.
Right now, few of us are paying much attention to the 2018 gubernatorial race. Instead, Californians worry about all the power in the American presidency, and how it might be misused by the current occupant of the White House.
But the perils of runaway executive power aren’t limited to Washington. Pay attention California. It could happen here.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.