Q&A with Gray Davis

After taking part in a Pomona Student Union panel on the state of California’s government Tuesday, Feb. 16, former California Governor Gray Davis sat down with The Student Life for an exclusive interview.

Travis Kaya, The Student Life: What did you think of tonight’s debate?

Governor Gray Davis: I think it was a very positive exchange; people got several different points of view. I thank the students for taking so much time. I was impressed with the turnout, they asked good questions, and I hope they came away feeling they have a little better sense as to what is happening or what is not happening in Sacramento.

TSL: You’re currently working at Loeb & Loeb, LLP in Los Angeles, and you are a Senior Fellow at UCLA’s School of Public Law. How was the transition from your public to private life?

GD: My wife said if she knew life could be this good, she would’ve voted for the recall. I don’t think I would go that far, but life has been very good to us. We still have the time to participate from time to time in the public arena. [Governor Schwarzenegger] just called me a couple of days ago—we were talking about something we could do together. The Obama people call. Many state legislators come by and visit me. I still have a chance to get my two cents in; they can take my advice or not. I feel after 31 years in Sacramento, my role now is to be a senior statesman.

TSL: One major decision that really resonated with us here at the Claremont Colleges was the decision to cut the University of California’s budget last year. Do you think that was the best possible decision? What possible alternatives could have been pursued?

GD: We have this roller coaster ride that the state goes on which mirrors the fluctuations of the business cycle. The cuts to education, both K-12 and higher education, are a direct result of not having a spending limit and rainy day fund that would buffer the highs and lows of state budget needs. While you’ll always have times when the economy is contracting, if you have a reserve you can draw down on—maybe 10 percent of the state budget—that will make these periods much less painful. Right now, we spend every dime in good times and sometimes more, and in bad times, it’s just disaster. No one understands that the economy is always going to change; it’s never going to stay the same. We’re in bad times now and in another couple years we’ll be in good times. People think the bad times last forever and they think the good times will last forever, but they all end.

TSL: Do you have a long-term vision for California?

GD: I think my long-term vision for California is we can be America’s future. Our strength really lies in our ability to innovate. We are the national leader in innovation, and arguably the global leader in innovation. You can’t outsource something until we invent it. As people realize the importance of higher education in the path to innovation, they will finance research. Encourage people to go into math and science by making it free regardless of income. If you want to go to the University of California and become an electrical engineer or get a degree in math, we’ll pay for it. Then we will continue to have the human resources for innovation. As we become a more global economy—that is a strength we currently have, but we have to invest in it—encourage people to pursue it and nurture it. That’s my hope and, on the flip side, [it] is my fear.

Detroit was the leader in innovation 30 years ago. After World War II, every electronics company save one was headquartered near Chicago, and something called the Stanford Research Institute was started. They took academic innovation coming from Berkeley, UCSF and Stanford and made it available to industry. They showed how an academic idea could become a product, and all of these companies, including Hewlett-Packard, started migrating out to Silicon Valley. That has to be constantly nurtured. It didn’t happen by accident. First you needed the ideas, then you needed someone who could say, “That’s academic gobbledygook; who can make that into an iPhone, into an iPod, or into a Blackberry?” Once that intermediary, Stanford Research Institute, existed, then everyone wanted to be there. We have to constantly invest in these entities that turn ideas into business.

TSL: You talked about California being a leader in education and innovation. Do you think the current budget has affected the credibility of the state?

GD: It hasn’t helped. I just feel strongly that this chapter you’re living through today will never end—it will end, but it will come back—the cycle will never end until we adopt some kind of fiscal constraint. I call it a spending limit, you can call it whatever you want. You can say that you don’t have a “spending limit,” but the first 10 percent of revenue goes into a rainy day fund. However you do it, you have to put money aside in good times so that you have a bank account you can draw down on in bad times. If we don’t do that, this problem is going to plague us forever.

You know why the legislature won’t do it? Because the teachers will say, “You’ve got the money, give it to me now.” Everybody who wants money will say, “Don’t tell me you don’t have the money. It’s sitting right there—give it to me now.” No one is thinking six months down the road, a year down the road, five years down the road.

TSL: Does that apply to the legislature, too?

GD: See, they’re out of there. They have term limits. They just want to serve the district that elected them. Now, they wish the best for the state, but they want to get all the money in their district. Only the governor and the state-wide officials are looking out for the interests of the whole state. You almost have to save the state from the politicians. You do that by putting in some constraints on what they can do.

Remember when we had surpluses at the end of the Clinton Administration? That’s because the Republicans and Democrats passed some kind of spending limit. That plus we were in an expansionary economy then and Clinton raised taxes on the rich, and the combination of all that led to the surplus. But the spending constraint was part of it.

TSL: What do you say to students who are coming out of college now and are pessimistic about the state of the economy?

GD: Their grandparents and great-grandparents experienced much more hardship than they will, and hopefully that will be a source of inspiration for them. It’s better to experience the tough times early in life. It toughens you, it makes you strong, and ultimately it will make you a better person.

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