Some things just sound a little less silly coming from the Terminator.
California Governor Jerry Brown was on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, 26 March, for a wide-ranging interview with Chuck Todd. And somebody at NBC thought it would be a good idea to post a story about the encounter with the headline:
Gov. Jerry Brown to Trump: ‘You Don’t Want to Mess With California’
The governor’s defiant warning comes as President Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is issuing his own warning to “sanctuary” locales: cities, counties – some of the biggest being in California – and even states. In fact, California has its own “sanctuary state” bill working its way through the legislature. With the nation’s largest population of illegal migrants, and an already clogged border with Mexico, California could make a difficult situation worse for its own citizens and the entire USA with such a law, which would focus on refusing certain kinds of cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
Brown made his case on Sunday on a different basis, of course, talking up the California economy:
“The federal government just can’t arbitrarily for political reasons punish the State of California, that’s number one,” he said. “Number two, California is America. We’re 12 percent. We’re a key part — the export capital going into the Pacific.
“We’re the innovation capital, high tech, agriculture, 40- to 50-billion-dollar industry. You don’t want to mess with California, because you’re going to mess with the economy, and that could blow up in your face in a gigantic recession and roll the Republicans right out of this town,” he said.
But that’s really irrelevant, starting with the fact that government activity in California is not what keeps the economy going. It’s vice versa.
The important point to keep in mind, however, is how Trump proposes to “mess with California.” His method is simple: cut off federal funding to the state.
And that’s something the California state budget and economy can’t absorb. By far the largest chunk of federal funding California receives goes to welfare programs: MediCal, food stamps, “supplementary” income, etc. Another large chunk goes to state education programs, including the University of California system as well as pre-K through 12 and junior colleges. (Between them, total HHS and education spending represent about 80% of the state’s formal budget.)
In fact, 36% of California’s state spending comes from federal funding. The federal-funding figure accompanying the 2016-17 budget is $69.3 billion. And 72% of that $69.3 billion goes to California HHS spending; i.e., welfare and other public assistance programs.
California doesn’t just have the largest illegal population in America, with an estimated 2.3 million in 2014. The state also has the nation’s largest welfare population, at about 1.2 million in 2014. This figure considers only TANF/CalWORKS recipients; food stamp recipients – CalFRESH – are a far larger group, comprising some 18% of the state population in 2014. MediCal, meanwhile, is something of a public-assistance time bomb: about a third of California’s 38 million people are now eligible for it, and its recent expenditure growth has alarmed state officials.
But there’s more. Besides the huge outlays each year on these programs, California also labors under a long-brewing public pensions crisis, delicately described in 2016 as “starting to explode.” For the first time ever, the public employees’ retirement system, CalPERS, had to cut pension benefits last year. The state is estimated to face $164 billion in unfunded pension obligations, and that figure is expected to grow.
It doesn’t matter that California is a “net donor” state among the 50 states. What matters is where the money comes from to maintain the debt-ridden state’s outlays on assistance programs and the state education programs – $99.5 billion in 2016-17. And the way California has structured its fiscal arrangements, a huge portion of it comes from the federal government.
If anything, the whole picture here reinforces how silly it is to have gotten into this situation in the first place, with the citizens of California sending billions to the federal government in taxes, and getting some of it back in funding for state programs that – in these conditions – are unaffordable for the Golden State.
Brown doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He has no way to cut off California-based tax revenues to Washington. Those revenues don’t go through Sacramento. The feds hold the high cards on this hand. Ironically, Democrats are actually the ones who have preferred it that way for decades. (Just as ironically, in fact, as demonstrated in Brown’s Sunday chat with Todd, it’s suddenly no longer a racist dog-whistle to talk about the 9th and 10th Amendments.)
“Don’t mess with California” is an empty threat. For what it’s worth, I don’t think California will succeed in seceding either. National Democrats won’t let that happen; they’d lose 55 guaranteed electoral votes, and a significant chunk of their delegation in the House, if they did.
Brown’s line really only works coming from Texas anyway.