Advocates of local government often lament that local government officials who go on to hold state office tend to put the needs of the state above those of the local entities. MIR is pleased to present this interview with Mike Gordon, former mayor of El Segundo and current candidate for the California Assembly, in which he talks about his strategy for balancing local and state concerns in the Assembly, and offers his take on Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowki's LAX consensus plan.
You're a candidate for the State Assembly. Having been the mayor of a South Bay city, what are the issues that dominate your campaign, and how do they correlate with the issues in the press that dominate capitol politics in the state?
The voters that I have met walking precincts, at neighborhood house meetings, and over the telephone are typically focusing their concerns on five policy areas: education, health care, jobs and the economy, transportation, and the environment. But voters aren't necessarily drawing the correlation between the state's fiscal crisis and its impact on the policy areas in which they would like to see more effort from the state of California. I've tried to explain that I share their desire to see more done in each of those policy areas, but before we're able to make significant progress in those areas, we're going to have to focus our efforts on balancing the state budget and getting the state's fiscal house in order.
The budget has just been approved. It was a set of compromises in a fiscally constrained environment. Many of the reformists and progressives who wanted to fix the dysfunctional state-local government relationship were stymied in their effort to do so. Instead, it became a defensive effort to protect future takings from local government. What could you have done, or what will you do, as a legislator to try to make that constructive connection between state and local government finances?
I don't believe it's responsible or fiscally wise not to address the fact that we have a structural deficit in our state budget. This year we have about $78 billion in expenses and about $68 billion in revenue. Although there were some cuts, this budget relies on a postponement of addressing what I consider to be the fundamental problem that the state budget has-its structural deficit.
So, from the leadership role that I hope to play in the State Legislature, I'm going to address that concern. We need to bring our expenditures and our revenue back together again such that we go forward with a balanced budget and program that doesn't harm the significant efforts of the state in areas such as education, transportation, etc. We must put our fiscal house back in order. That's why as Mayor and Councilman in El Segundo I balanced the budget for eights straight years – on time.
I want to read you a quote from former State Finance Director, Assemblyman and Senator Steve Peace in our April issue. When asked about what reforms he would make in California governance he said, "I'd start with giving back authority to local governments to make decisions. And that means the state has to give back taxing authority. Then I would move many decisions and powers that currently reside in the state down to the regional level, and at the same time allow some of the authority currently exercised by discreet local jurisdictions to be exercised at the regional level. California's just to big for most decisions to be governed by Sacramento." Your thoughts?
As a former local government guy, I'm a firm believer that local government is well positioned to address the needs of their communities. That said, the short-term answers are going to be found by addressing where the state fiscal situation went south. This decline in the state's finances dates back to1999 when we had a windfall of revenue come into the state. We took what was definitely one-time money and put it into the annualized operating expenditure of the state. When the state economy slowed up and that one time money melted away, we were left with the increases in expenditures but no longer had the revenue.
So, from my way of thinking, we need to determine how to return in concept to where we were in 1999 with our expenditures by adjusting our state budget by the rate of inflation up until the 2005-2006 budget. Then, we shall see how close our expenditures and revenue are from being balanced. Once we reestablish the expenditure threshold, then we can look at what other potential cuts could be made to bring the expenditures in line. But we've got to address the fact that the state budget went off track by taking one-time money and putting it into our operating expenditures. It didn't have anything to do with local control. That wasn't the issue.
Michael, one of the reforms moving through the initiative process right now would create open primaries. The thrust of that is that the primary process and lack of voter participation has led to extremes in both parties controlling the primaries. You have to get a declaration of support by some of the most radical elements of your party in order to survive the primary. But, how do we get back to having the state government more reflective of the constituents that you were so close to in local government?
I don't support the open primary concept. I know why the authors believe it's a positive. I know they believe that a lot of these races are over in the primary, that the extremes of both parties are the only candidates that can get through the process, and as a result there are no more moderate members in the body. As a consequence, we have politics of the extreme. If you look at the body, I can see how some people can draw that conclusion.
The reason I'm opposed to the open primary is that races that would normally be completely over after the primary would drag on with more political infighting within a each party. For example, take the 47th Assembly District race between Karen Bass, Nate Holden, and Ricky Ivy. That race is over today. Karen Bass won the primary, and is going forward, and she's going to be a terrific member of the State Assembly. But if we had an open primary situation, that race would not be over, despite the fact that Karen Bass garnered roughly 45% of the vote. Because she did not get 50% plus one, Nate and Karen would still be running against each other. The two of them would have a rerun of the primary campaign and there would be a draw down on the overall revenue that the state Democrats have to use in races. Instead of having more money to use in competitive races, we would be forced to invest in races between two members of the same party. The party would potentially lose seats in the Legislature as a result. So from my perspective, the open primary could be harmful.
The question of how we can get a broader based representation in the Assembly remains. Number one, we need to find candidates who are going to provide a broader representation. If you look at the candidates that ran this time, they were mostly folks that came from the extremes of their parties. There weren't very many candidates who really came from the middle. My message wasn't liberal or conservative; it was really just about issues and policy. I had been involved in the process for long time, and as a consequence, when I started to campaign, people just said, "Mike Gordon's the right guy." It's about seeking out candidates who bring experience and background and a vision for California to the race. People like that can win primaries regardless of whether they're moderate, liberal, and conservative.
Many of the legislators now in the body and coming to the body have come out of local government. There's more sensitivity now. But they seem to become state people after a while, according to locals, with more of an orientation to state power and more of a silo-like orientation to the policy issues that dominate their life in the capitol. That may be with respect to transportation, or housing, or educational facilities. How do you stay focused, as local government officials are, on the integration of these issues into the fabric of our neighborhoods?
When I go to Sacramento, I will have had eight years in local government, with six of those years as a mayor. During many of those years, I worked on regional transportation issues, such as airports, maglev and high speed rail. So, I've had a chance to participate in both a local and a statewide environment. Ultimately, the Legislature, regardless of its makeup, needs to be sensitive to the role that local government plays. They need to realize that although the role that is played by the state is very significant, the role and contribution of local government is equally significant. We need to find a way for locals to maintain their revenue thresholds and continue to provide the level of service that we've asked them to, while at the same time providing the state the necessary resources to focus on its priorities. It shouldn't be an either/or. We should be able to do this in a way that allows both to prosper.
One more question. The LAX master plan is moving ahead with a compromise plan. There's still some opposition. What is your take on the Miscikowski consensus plan and what it portends for the modernization of LAX?
\There are some aspects of the Miscikowski plan that we are able to support, such as the extension of the Green Line, the consolidation of the car rental agency, and the inter-modal transportation center at Aviation and Imperial. But, we cannot support the ground transportation center and the movement of the Southern runway closer to El Segundo. We also believe there has to be a firm agreement between the city of L.A. and the city of El Segundo that caps the number of gates at the airport to limit the capacity of the airport to the 78.9 million annual passengers that exists today.
Although people want to refer to Miscikowski's plan as the consensus plan, there is still substantial opposition. Myself, Supervisor Knabe, Congresswoman Harman and others continue to be very concerned about the fact that an agreement on capacity hasn't been completed and that the ground transportation center continues to be in this plan. The Miscikowski plan is headed for a great deal of debate and opposition as we go forward if it is not amended. I applaud Cindy for her efforts to try to build consensus, but we just can't simply support a plan that is not going to be acceptable to the people that live and work around this airport.
The bottom line is, whatever we finally agree to is going to be the airport plan for the next 30 or 40 years. It doesn't make sense to shoehorn a plan through today when we could take the ground transportation center out, get the binding agreement on the gates, and put in effect what should done. It might take another year-and-a-half or two years to complete, but when you look at the scope of the plan, it just doesn't make any sense not to do it right. Our mantra is, let's do it right, take the additional time necessary to make it right, and go forward with a plan that will be acceptable to everyone.