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Progressives frustrated by failure to enact their agenda in deep blue California

This post appeared on Calmatters

The California Nurses Association, which led the coalition behind the high-profile 2017 push for a single-payer system, has re-branded its campaign with the slogan “Fight to Win Medicare-for-All.

In summary

Although Democrats dominate California’s politics, left-leaning organizations feel frustrated in their efforts to remake the state.

Seemingly, California is a deeply blue state in which Democrats hold virtually all of the levers of political power, including all statewide offices and three-fourths of the Legislature’s seats.

However, California’s most frustrated political bloc these days are the progressives who yearn to remake the state into a model of economic and social egalitarianism with an extensive array of free or low-cost services ranging from universal health care and family income supports to child care and higher education.

Their movement seemed to be making some gains last year when Gov. Gavin Newsom, outwardly the most progressive governor in history, was bragging about a $97 billion state budget surplus and approving expansions of child care, health coverage for undocumented immigrants and other points of the progressive agenda.

It was a fleeting moment at best.

The massive surplus has since become a massive deficit – $68 billion according to the Legislature’s budget analyst – while Newsom has been drifting toward the political middle as he concentrates on building a national profile. He talks a lot more about fighting street crime these days than his 2018 campaign pledge to bring single-payer health care to the state.

Progressive groups are now lamenting that they have been unable to realize their many goals and sounding the alarm about losing ground despite having, on paper, a state government full of vocal allies.

“Why are we coming up short?” Dr. Manual Pastor of USC’s Equity Research Institute said during a roundtable discussion Tuesday aimed at forging a new coalition of progressive organizations to push for change.

“This is the work of our generation,” Henry A.J. Ramos, a senior fellow for the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy, said.

“While solidly Democratic, California still hasn’t lived up to its progressive reputation in terms of real policy change,” Ramos and another seminar participant, attorney and organizer Robb Smith, wrote in Capitol Weekly a few months ago. “Why not, when we have such a large pool of left-leaning voters? Because securing long-overdue social and economic justice reforms across our state will require a much greater focus on coalescing voters to first approve structural changes in state governance.”

The term “structural changes” means contesting state laws, some of them in the constitution, that make it difficult to raise taxes that would be needed to finance the movement’s agenda, even if the state didn’t have a big budget gap.

The same lament is also found in another appeal this week from the California Earned Income Tax Credit Coalition, which supported the state’s initial efforts to raise incomes of poor families by giving them refundable state tax credits.

The coalition, citing rising levels of poverty, called on legislators to protect the tax credit and other programs to support poor families as they deal with the state’s huge budget deficit – by raising taxes if necessary. The coalition specifically supports Senate Bill 220, which would increase corporate income taxes.

Legislative leaders have issued pro forma assurances that they will protect vital programs as they deal not only with the $68 billion current deficit but projections of multibillion-dollar shortfalls for years to come. However, something will have to give – unless they muster the will to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy that progressives seek.

Newsom has adopted a no-new-taxes mantra as he moderates his national image, but he also opposes a business-backed ballot measure, scheduled for the November 2024 ballot, that would make it even more difficult to increase local and state taxes. Its passage would be the ultimate setback for progressives who already feel stymied.

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