Reagan: big saver, big spender
When Ronald Reagan first took office as governor of California in 1967, he promised to "cut, squeeze, and trim until we reduce the cost of government." Today he is running for the White House on the same theme, emphasizing for all who will listen his accomplishments as chief executive, for eight years, of the nation's largest state.
What kind of job did he do as head of what, if has often been noted, would be the ninth-largest country in the world if it were independent? Did he leave California in better shape than he found it?
A review of the Reagan record shows him to have been much more pragmatic -- and even liberal -- than his rhetoric might indicate. He "cut, squeezed, and trimmed" in some areas, but he also presided over mammoth budget and tax increases. He railed against welfare "chiselers" and campus radicals, yet doubled state spending for education and established a welfare reform program that many of his critics admire. He signed a liberal abortion law, made advances in consumer and environmental protection, and (although he has since changed his position) favored an equal rights amendment for women.
He talked about decentralizing authority but helped the shift in fiscal control from local governments to the state capitol. Specifically:
Taxes and government finance
Mr. Reagan inherited a $194 million deficit when he took office, and state taxes came to about $184 a year per capita. Inflation totaled 44 percent over the eight Reagan years, but state spending and taxing rose at a much higher rate. Some of this was offset by reductions in local welfare and education costs (and consequently property taxes). The increase in state employees (6 percent) was held below the population rise (11 percent).
But the overall cost of state government was not reduced as Mr. Reagan had promised. The state budget went from $4.6 billion to $10.2 billion. With state spending growing half-again as fast as personal income, per capita state taxes were now $382 a year.
Mr. Reagan did not, as might have been implied from his campaign sloganeering , lop off any important bureaucratic branches; in fact, he established several dozen new boards and commissions.
He may have been ahead of his time in pushing a state constitutional limit on growth in government spending, however. A measure of the type overwhelmingly approved here last year was defeated by voters in 1973. but embarrassed by revelations that, by utilizing legal loopholes, he had avoided paying any state income taxes in 1971, Mr. Reagan apparently felt compelled to sign a "minimum income tax" bill.
When Mr. Reagan retired as governor after two terms, he left the state with a on a course of fiscal conservancy that the voters (as reflected in Proposition 13) apparently favored and his Democratic successor (Edmund G. Brown Jr.) continued.
Mr. Reagan is most proud of the welfare reform he instituted in 1971. By tightening up on eligibility requirements, cracking down on fraud, and instituting a "work experience program," he reversed a 40,000 case-per-month welfare increase and reduced the number of people on welfare in California by more than 350,000 over the next three years. At the same time, welfare benefits for the "truly needy," as he put it, were increased substantially.
Mr. Reagan claims to have saved the state $2 billion through welfare reform. But critics say the state's improving economy had a lot to do with it. They put the actual savings to a closer to $100 million.
Mr. Reagan continually butted heads with the general academic community and forced students in the state university system to pay tuition for the first time. At the same time, spending for state colleges and universities doubled during the Reagan years, and aid to public schools rose from $1.2 billion a year to $2.7 billion.
Some now argue that this latter trend, together with property tax reductions that came with increasing state budget surpluses, helped concentrate authority in Sacramento.
Mr. Reagan opposed state land-use controls, but he established an "ecology corps" in California, approved stiff air and water quality control laws, and set up a special committion to protect San Francisco Bay.
Although claiming to oppose abortion on principle, Governor Reagan signed into law in 1967 a measure that resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of abortions in California. He said he now regrets that, and recently told the Los Angeles Times, "The safeguards that I thought were in the legislation are regularly violated in an unethical way by various groups of professionals
During almost all of his eight years as governor, Republican Reagan faced a Democratic Legislature. When he could not come to terms with the legislators, he liberally used his veto or went over their heads, via television, to the electorate. This was particularly true with welfare reform, when lawmakers succumbed to Reagan-generated public support.
Mr. Reagan won the governorship by defeating incumbent Edmund G. Brown Sr. by nearly 900,000 votes in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1, and went on to win re-election in 1970 by 500,000 votes.
Apparently, Ronald Reagan's popularity has not abated here since he left public office in 1975. He won the state's Republican presidential primary in 1976, and his supporters have continued to beat back attempts to change the state Republican Party's archaic winner-take-all way of choosing national convention delegates.
A more telling indication of how well Mr. Reagan performed as governor -- at least as perceived by Californians -- may be in the results of a recent poll. Pollster Mervin Field reported last week that Mr. Reagan's "retrospective job rating" resulted in "a very pronounced favorable impression . . . more favorable than their [Californians'] impression of him at any time during the period he was actually in office.'
Critics might say that Californians' memories have simply faded.
Ronald Reagan himself takes the opposite view. Insisting that the rest of the country is catching up with his conservative view, he holds out his record as governor as proof that he is qualified to be president.