Only far-right conservatives and people who don't know Governor Jerry Brown think he's a liberal. The rest of us, especially longtime Oakland residents, know that the former mayor is very much a centrist. And he proved it once again last week, unveiling yet another austere budget proposal that prioritizes paying off debt and stockpiling cash in reserve rather than restoring funds to California's social safety net, which was shredded by cutbacks during the Great Recession.
Republicans quickly praised Brown's new budget proposal, particularly the parts that call for putting $1.4 billion in the state's rainy day fund and allocating an additional $450 million each year to pay off teacher pension fund debt. But liberal Democrats are showing signs that they may buck the governor's proposal this year, after they went along with his austerity plan last year — and his overly conservative revenue projections. It's high time that they pick a fight with the governor. Brown's cautious budgeting style is ill-suited for an economy in which wages for low- and middle-income residents remain well below what they were before the housing crash.
In fact, nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor said last Friday that the state likely will have far more to spend next fiscal year because Brown is once again underestimating tax revenues. Taylor's office estimates that the state tax revenues will increase by about twice as much this year — by about $4.9 billion — as the governor's estimate of $2.4 billion.
Brown made the same error last year. In May 2013, Taylor's office estimated that tax revenues this year would be about $3.2 billion higher than the governor's forecast. Democrats, unfortunately, agreed to go with Brown's low-ball estimate, and thus ignored proposals for additional funding for education, social services, and job training programs. Predictably, Taylor's estimates turned out to be correct, as state revenues outpaced Brown's estimates by billions of dollars.
Democrats can't afford to make the same mistake this year. According to a study released by the California Budget Project last week, the economic recovery is still bypassing low- and middle-income workers. Last year, the median hourly wage for a low-income worker was just $10.90. That was more than 5 percent lower than it was before the recession, when adjusted for inflation. And for middle-income residents, the median wage in 2013 was $19.10 an hour. That also was more than 5 percent lower than it was before the recession. Wages for higher-income earners, by contrast, have largely returned to pre-crash levels. In short, now is not the time for more austerity.
Unfortunately, Democrats no longer hold a super-majority in the state Senate. As a result, it'll be tougher to pass a progressive budget this year. But that doesn't mean that liberals should just roll over and agree to the governor's plan. At minimum, they should demand that the state use Taylor's revenue projections, because that would give the legislature more leeway to restore funding for programs that help those who need it most.
About Time for Whent
The decision last week by Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Fred Blackwell to promote Interim Police Chief Sean Whent to the job permanently was a no-brainer. In late April, Independent Court Monitor Robert Warshaw reported that OPD, under Whent's command, had achieved the highest level of compliance to date with federally mandated reforms. In addition, recent statistics show that violent crime has plummeted on Whent's watch this year. In other words, Quan and Blackwell would have had some serious explaining to do if they had decided to hire someone other than Whent for the job, considering the results he has achieved.
Although it's only mid-May, and crime trends have been known to shift quickly in Oakland, the stats so far this year are very encouraging. Violent crime is down significantly in nearly every major category. Robberies, which have plagued the city during the past few years, have declined an astounding 37 percent so far in 2014 compared to this time last year. Homicides are down, too, declining 22 percent compared to this time last year. To date, homicides are at their lowest point in nearly a decade. And when you look at the number of killings since Whent became interim chief in May 2013, it's even more impressive. During his twelve months as interim chief, there were 75 homicides in Oakland, compared to 124 in the previous twelve months. That's a drop of nearly 40 percent. Furthermore, Oakland hasn't had a calendar year with 75 or fewer homicides since 1999 — Jerry Brown's first year in office.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Whent attributes the drop in violent crime to the department's Ceasefire violence prevention program, which targets street gangs, and to an increased emphasis on trying to solve crimes. For years, OPD had ignored crime investigations, and instead focused primarily on patrolling city streets. The results were predictably dismal.
Whent's record also contradicts the longstanding myth in Oakland that the federally mandated reforms, which are designed to reduce police brutality and misconduct, have inhibited OPD's crime-fighting efforts. Under Whent, the department has made substantial progress in meeting the reforms — and has reduced crime at the same time.
Likewise, Whent's record so far provides evidence that OPD does not need to dramatically increase the size of its police force in order to reduce crime, as law-and-order proponents have asserted in the past few years. Hopefully, Whent can keep it up — so that the city can instead direct its scarce resources to other needs, like building more affordable housing for low-income residents.