The Recall: What Would Reagan Think of It?

What the large group of Republican women in Southern California wanted to hear about the other day was, what would Ronald Reagan think of the recall election of Governor Gray Davis on October 7?

Alas, he cannot tell us, for he is locked in that prison of the mind called Alzheimer’s disease. From what I know of him, however, I think he would be dismayed that California had been so mismanaged that the people felt the need to take this drastic step. But they did, and if he were with us I think he would go to the next step, which would be to carefully weigh the Davis record, including the following:

  • Davis inherited a surplus of $8 billion; and, in a little over four years, turned it into a deficit of $38 billion.
  • As he spent the surplus, Davis said it was on one-time items. That wasn’t true; they became embedded in the budget.
  • Davis announced a state-hiring freeze. Since January 1, however, he has hired a monthly average of 2,700 new state employees. Since he took office the number of state workers has grown by 22,000.
  • Davis claims to be a friend of the environment. Yet, a few days ago the American Lung Association issued a study of the air quality in American cities. The five worst are in California: Riverside, Fresno, Bakersfield, Los Angeles/Long Beach and Sacramento.
  • The energy crisis. Davis didn’t cause it, but he ignored the problem until blackouts were imminent. Among his negotiators with energy companies was one who was also a consultant to an energy company. This produced $42 billion in long-term contracts, priced well above market rates.
  • Tripling the auto license fees by executive order. And, there are two bills that will drive businesses-and jobs-away from California: his Family Leave Law and the inflated Worker’s Compensation Law.

In business there is an axiom called the Peter Principle, which says that some people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. Gray Davis, with his spectacular mismanagement of the state, has validated the Peter Principle

I think Ronald Reagan’s reaction to Davis’s sorry record would be that the state’s miseries should never have happened. Because of his strong belief that power is derived from the people, he would have no quarrel with the recall process. After all, it cannot be exercised on a whim: well over one million citizens signed petitions in order for it to reach the ballot.

Like Davis and the energy crisis, Reagan began his governorship with an acute inherited problem: the state was spending $1.5 million more a day than it was taking in. His predecessor’s administration had used sleight-of-hand to accomplish what seemed to be a balanced budget, which the law requires.

To right this wrong, Reagan reluctantly agreed to a temporary increase in income taxes. When he did so he said that once the problem was cured and “rainy day” money set aside, he would return any surpluses to the people. By the end of his eight years, Reagan had returned $5 billion to Californians in the form of tax relief and license fee and toll reductions.

Reagan has quipped that government is like an infant: It has an insatiable appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other. He pressed often for the need to put government on a diet. Davis, on the other hand, seemed to think that government should get what government wants.

In some cases its costs were driven by campaign promises. In January last year, for example, Davis signed a 34% pay increase for prison guards. A few weeks later, their union contributed a quarter of a million dollars to his reelection campaign.

Davis cannot blame California’s huge budget deficit on the bursting of the bubble. During his first term revenues increased by 25% while inflation and population combined grew by only 21%. General fund spending, on the other hand, increased by 40%.

Put the entire record together and my guess is Ronald Reagan would favor the recall of Gray Davis. By now, Davis has been there four and two-thirds years. There is a clear pattern of behavior. I think Ronald Reagan would take the position that the future of the state is too important to leave in the hands of a man who has proved that he is an incompetent manager.

Let us say a majority votes him out. Who would Ronald Reagan vote for to replace him? I cannot say, but I know he has never had a built-in bias against actors going into politics. On the other hand, he has always admired politicians and office holders who have a firm grasp of economics and government finance. From that, supporters of both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock can take heart.