California Politics: Is it time to retire the State of the State?

Gov. Gavin Newsom will dust off a time-honored tradition on Tuesday when he delivers the State of the State address to members of the Legislature, marking the second straight year in which the event has been delayed far past its traditional date in early January.

But has anyone really missed it this year?

Even in a community that relishes its traditions, there’s a quiet acknowledgment in Sacramento circles that the State of the State has become a political anachronism — a reminder of how much governing has changed and, as an annual event, a ritual that’s probably ready for retirement.

Nonetheless, Newsom will soldier on next week. But few Californians are likely to pay much attention.

It used to be ‘the speech’ in Sacramento

The State of the State as we know it was largely created in the late 20th century.

Its roots lie in the original 1849 California Constitution, which required the governor to “communicate by message, to the Legislature at every session, the condition of the state.” A similar passage exists in the U.S. Constitution, one that’s evolved into the modern-day State of the Union.

But if early governors gave much thought to the task, there’s no record of it.

It was the architect of modern California, Gov. Pat Brown, who appears to have remade the constitutional task into an important speech delivered to a joint session of the Legislature. His successors followed suit, typically delivering remarks a few days before their Jan. 10 constitutional deadline for proposing a new state budget.

At its peak, the State of the State represented a governor’s best chance to lay out an agenda to legislators and to Californians who tuned in to watch live TV coverage. Governors unveiled expansive school reforms, transportation projects, proposals to get tough on crime and far-reaching tax cuts in their State of the State speeches. Reporters received detailed briefings by administration officials in the days and hours leading up to the event, ensuring extensive coverage of the various policy positions.

California’s two movie-star governors brought an air of spectacle to the event.

Gov. Ronald Reagan railed against protests on University of California campuses in 1969, likening them to “anarchy and insurrection.” More than three decades later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger famously lashed out at powerful interest groups, warning in 2005 that “the people will rise up” to overhaul the government and that he would join them — an effort that fizzled in a failed special election later that year.

“The State of the State used to be the speech — the table-setter for the year,” said Steve Maviglio, who served as press secretary for Gov. Gray Davis.

Did the budget kill the speech?

But the State of the State seems to have lost its way.

It’s no longer the vehicle for a governor’s biggest public policy ideas. That distinction now belongs to the state budget, crafted through a process that affords the governor a lot of power and has grown to include most of the big activities of state government.

Budget agreements are also achieved, under current political conditions, without any requirement for bipartisan support. Schwarzenegger was the last governor who had to cajole a supermajority of members of the state Senate and Assembly to pass a budget, a legal threshold removed by Proposition 25 in 2010.

“When the budget required a two-thirds vote, the governor would lay out his policy positions and priorities in the State of the State speech and issue a call to action of sorts because he had to build support in the Legislature to enact those policy proposals,” said Beth Miller, who served as deputy communications director for Gov. Pete Wilson.

Few governors have been as single-minded about the budget as Schwarzenegger’s successor, Gov. Jerry Brown. The topic dominated the State of the State addresses he gave after returning for historic third and fourth terms as governor. Now, in both good fiscal times and bad, the biggest policy debate every year is about California’s spending plan.

“In a sense,” said Miller, “the budget is the real State of the State.”

Newsom’s 2022 backdrop?

The State of the State also hasn’t fared well in the fragmented media landscape of the 21st century. Local TV news, even the stations in the capital city, can no longer be guaranteed to broadcast the State of the State. (That became even less likely when Brown moved the speech to a quick midmorning time slot that no longer gave evening newscasts something to highlight.)

Newsom’s approach has been to do something different.

In his first State of the State in 2020 — governors generally skip their first year in favor of delivering a single inaugural address — Newsom devoted his entire speech to homelessness, declaring it to be a singular “cause” for the year. The following month, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the course of history.

This year might mark a new low for the State of the State. After all, Newsom chose to unveil his new, expansive effort to expand the role of the courts in mandating care for homeless people on Thursday, five days before what used to be the premier policy speech of the year.

“Instead of the State of the State being a focal point to grab the public’s attention, it’s almost become just another speech,” Maviglio said.

One final bit of intrigue: Where will it be held?

Last year, Newsom chose an empty Dodger Stadium for what he hoped would be a powerful backdrop to symbolize what had been lost during the pandemic. Not everyone saw it that way. Next week’s State of the State will be back in Sacramento, according to the governor’s office, but not in the Assembly chamber.

Who’s running? The 2022 deadline looms

With one week left for candidates to join statewide, congressional and legislative races, there’s no immediate sign of any surprise announcements that would shake up California politics.

There’s been no sign from former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer that he’ll challenge Newsom in the governor’s race. Nor has there been any GOP candidate with a statewide following who has stepped up to challenge the Democrats who hold most of California’s constitutional offices. The same holds true for the first election for Sen. Alex Padilla, appointed by Newsom last year to fill the vacancy left by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The most closely watched statewide race, at this point, looks to be for attorney general, where incumbent Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta will be challenged by several candidates, including Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert — a Republican-turned-independent who on Tuesday received the endorsement of some prominent law enforcement groups. In the AG’s race and elsewhere, crime is shaping up to be a major campaign issue.

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California politics lightning round

— California would allow nurse practitioners to more easily work independently of a doctor and perform abortions under legislation that seeks to expand reproductive care while other states move to restrict access.

— Newsom rescinded a slate of COVID-19-related executive orders last week in response to signs of a subsiding pandemic, but did not end California’s nearly two-year-long state of emergency.

— Newsom’s promises to lower prescription drug costs for all Californians have either failed to get off the ground or haven’t produced the hefty savings he promised.

Richard Blum, the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, died on Sunday at his San Francisco home. He was 86.

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