Tesla Motors’ decision Thursday to build its giant electric-car battery plant in Nevada instead of California came at an awkward moment for Gov. Jerry Brown.
The announcement was made hours before this year’s first and only California gubernatorial debate. Sure enough, the Democrat received an earful during the televised forum from Republican candidate Neel Kashkari about the exodus of companies from the Golden State.
“I don’t think Gov. Brown did nearly enough on Tesla and any number of businesses,” Mr. Kashkari said. “Gov. Brown frequently says, ‘Well, businesses come and go.’ It’s not businesses coming and going. It’s Tesla. It’s Toyota. It’s Schwab. It’s Nestle, on and on, and they’re all going. There’s a real problem.”
Mr. Brown, seeking his second consecutive term as governor and fourth term overall, said the price for persuading the Palo Alto-based Tesla to expand in California was too high. Tesla’s deal with Nevada is estimated at about $1.25 billion in terms of tax breaks and incentives.
“We fought hard for Tesla, but Tesla wanted a massive cash upfront payment that I don’t think would be fair to the taxpayers of California,” Mr. Brown said.
Five states were bidding for the $5 billion Tesla gigafactory, which brings with it about 6,500 jobs, but Tesla chairman Elon Musk and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval announced Thursday that the plant would be built in Sparks, Nevada. Tesla still has an auto manufacturing plant in Fremont, California.
“We wish them well, because when Tesla wanted to build electric car, they built it in Fremont, California, and cars are coming off the line every day,” Mr. Brown said. “Electric cars are a big part of our future. We have a [one] million electric-car goal in California, and we’re going to meet it. And in order to get there, we need Tesla to bring down the cost of batteries, so I wish them well.”
So far Mr. Brown, 76, is a heavy favorite for re-election. A Field Poll released Thursday showed the incumbent ahead of his 41-year-old challenger by 50 to 34 percentage points. Mr. Brown also enjoys a job approval rating of 58 percent, with 36 percent disapproving.
One problem for Mr. Kashkari, an aerospace engineer and assistant treasury secretary under President George W. Bush, is name recognition. The Field Poll found 41 percent had no opinion of the first-time candidate, while just 9 percent had no opinion of Mr. Brown, who’s been a fixture in California politics for more than 40 years.
During the debate, Mr. Kashkari called for reforming California’s environmental regulatory rules, which can discourage businesses with lengthy construction delays, and pointed to the success of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in improving his state’s economic prospects.
“If you look in Wisconsin, Gov. Walker, who’s been governor for the same term, started out 41st in business and job climate, and today they’re 17th,” Mr. Kashkari said. “That’s real progress that you can make in a few years. Gov. Brown hasn’t done the work.”
Mr. Kashkari pointed to the expedited environmental review of the Sacramento Kings’ new arena in 2013, and asked, “Instead of just giving it to those who are politically connected, who can hire high-priced lobbyists like the Sacramento KIngs or like some of the big businesses he’s given this deal to — he tried to give it to Tesla — why don’t we actually adopt that new standard and make it available it to everyone?”
“All of these policies are well meaning, but this is why jobs are leaving the state. We have highest poverty rate in America: 24 percent poverty,” Mr. Kashkari said, adding, “Jobs leave and our poverty goes up. Let’s not chuck all regulations, but let’s have smart sensible regulations.”
Mr. Brown countered that he’s been fighting to reform the California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA] “since I was mayor of Oakland,” but that during his tenure as governor, “We’ve created 1.4 million jobs, we’ve raised our minimum wage, we’ve extended health care.”
“California is a land of opportunity. This is the place of Google, this is the place of dreams, of the best agriculture in the whole country,” Mr. Brown said. “I know we’re hearing California run down, and how bad it is, and poverty and no jobs — that’s not the picture of California that I know and love. I love this state and I know it works, and I can tell you this, the last four years, we haven’t solved all the problems, but boy, what momentum we have.”