Governor hopefuls duck details on fixing budget with buzzwords

Meg Whitman ran a major corporation. Jerry Brown has been enmeshed in California politics for four-plus decades, including an eight-year stint as governor.

Both are smart enough and experienced enough to know that the state budget is a complete mess. In fact, both of them are highly critical of the deficit-ridden budget and the convoluted nonprocess by which it’s cobbled together every year.

But, when it comes to specifics — how each would reshape the budget’s priorities and its supportive tax structure, and persuade the Legislature to reform them — they retreat into generalities and buzzwords.

Brown even has the chutzpah to claim that he’s eschewing generalities and buzzwords while he emits more of them.

“Our state is in a real mess, and I’m not going to give you any phony plans or snappy slogans that don’t go anywhere,” Brown says in a recent TV ad. “We have to make some tough decisions.”

What “tough decisions”? He won’t say.

Whitman is equally evasive, talking vaguely about eliminating government waste and trimming state payrolls. But, she doesn’t give any clue as to how it would add up to the roughly $20 billion that would be needed to eliminate the state’s structural deficit — especially since she also says she wants to cut taxes to spur economic recovery.

Brown talks about building a new state budget from scratch with the help of legislators. But, he ignores the fact that the largest chunk of spending, financing K-12 schools and community colleges, is locked into the state constitution, and many other categories of spending — such as welfare and health care — are virtually dictated by federal law or federal courts.

Whitman talks about getting tough with the Legislature to produce a budget. She disregards the fact that the governor has virtually no power to make the Legislature do anything, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had similar pre-gubernatorial illusions, quickly learned.

Both candidates retreat into generalities because they are too intelligent and experienced not to know that presenting voters with even semi-specific proposals to close the deficit would mean they’d be hammered by those with stakes in preserving their pieces of the status-quo pie.

They are, in effect, telling Californians that they can govern, when all the evidence indicates that whichever one is elected Nov. 2 would be no more successful than Schwarzenegger or his recent predecessors.

With three gubernatorial debates looming, it will be interesting — even entertaining — to see how the rivals project images of governance without providing the substance.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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