Voters in California may be cashing state stimulus checks from Gov. Gavin Newsom shortly before they decide his political fate.
Mr. Newsom is crisscrossing the state for a weeklong unveiling of his California Comeback Plan, a proposed $100 billion spending spree that includes $600 direct payment for nearly 80% of all workers, fueled by a $76 billion budget surplus and $27 billion in federal pandemic recovery funds.
“That is a record investment, and this is all possible because of you,” Mr. Newsom said Tuesday at a press conference in San Diego County. “This is all possible because of 40 million Californians strong, a state that is not coming back, a state that is roaring back.”
The massive spend-a-thon, which includes $12 billion for homeless services, $5.2 billion for rent and utility assistance, and additional $500 payments for low-income families — including illegal immigrants — comes with Mr. Newsom on the cusp of a recall, a factor that did not go unnoticed by his political opponents.
“In my lifetime, Democrats never voluntarily return money to the taxpayers, so let’s call it for what it is: It is a recall rebate,” California state Senate Minority Leader Scott Wilk said in an email.
The recall campaign amassed 1.7 million signatures, well above the 1.49 million required to place the first-term governor on the ballot. But the still-unscheduled special election is likely months away, giving Mr. Newsom plenty of time to win back voters who are steamed over his job performance, including his strict coronavirus lockdowns.
Randy Economy, spokesperson for Recall Gavin Newsom, compared the governor’s largesse to the 2004 episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in which she gave away cars to her entire studio audience.
“It’s a flashback to the old Oprah Winfrey television show where everybody gets a car,” Mr. Economy said. “Gavin Newsom is drunk on power right now, and his entire life is revolving around the people’s recall, and it should be, but it’s almost like bribes to voters.”
That doesn’t mean it won’t work. All California tax filers earning less than $75,000, or about 78% of the state, would receive $600 direct payments under Mr. Newsom’s plan, which must be approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Low-income renters could have 100% of their back rents paid, as well as their water and power bills, under the surplus spending. It’s a dramatic reversal of fortune from last year’s projections of a $50 billion state budget deficit.
“Newsom was already a heavy favorite to survive the recall, but sending out these checks makes his position even stronger,” said Dan Schnur, who was a spokesperson for Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican. He now teaches political communications at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley.
A Berkeley IGS Poll released Tuesday found that support for recalling Mr. Newsom remains unchanged at 36%, but 49% now say they plan to oppose the recall, an increase from 45% in late January.
“A lot can happen between now and the election, which could turn voters against him, but right now, sending money directly to Californians is a very savvy move,” Mr. Schnur said in an email.
Republicans said Mr. Newsom has no choice but to reimburse Californians under the so-called Gann limit, a 1979 constitutional amendment that requires the state to return to the taxpayers any amount above the state’s per-person spending ceiling.
“This governor is trying to take credit for something that he is required to do by law,” said Mr. Wilk. “However, this rebate is welcome news for an economy shattered by his ‘one-man rule.’”
Republican John Cox, who is running to replace Mr. Newsom on the recall ballot, said in a statement that the governor should have reduced the tax rate instead of sending one-off checks to taxpayers.
“Instead of making beastly, structural changes and slashing taxes permanently, pretty boy Gavin Newsom is making one-time payments to Californians to avoid being recalled — and only because the law requires him to,” Mr. Cox said. “But, Californians can’t be bought. Now is when we should be making big changes that will shake-up Sacramento, lower taxes and make California permanently more affordable.”
In the poll, Mr. Cox and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer drew the most support among voters who were asked which Republicans they would be most inclined to support, at 22% each. Former Rep. Doug Ose carried 14%, and reality-television star Caitlyn Jenner polled at 6%.
The unexpected $76 billion surplus has been attributed largely to capital gains taxes paid by wealthy residents who outperformed pandemic expectations under a surging stock market. About $38 billion is available for new discretionary spending.
Sen. Alex Padilla, California Democrat, called the surplus a “testament to the tremendous leadership” of Mr. Newsom. Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said the $600 checks are “the least government can do.”
Mr. Coupal said the checks hardly make up for the higher taxes and prices that Californians pay by virtue of living in the Golden State.
“You have, as a resident of California, the highest taxes in the nation: the highest income tax rate, highest sales tax, highest gas cost,” Mr. Coupal said. “With the gas cost alone, I suspect that the difference [per year] between what California pays for a gallon of gas and the national average is far more than this piddling 600 bucks for the average family.”
Others were frustrated at the specter of federal recovery dollars paying for Mr. Newsom’s spending blitz.
“This is one more reason why borrowing and sending tens of billions to California was a crying shame — and why every Republican in Congress opposed it,” Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, said in a post on Twitter.
Mr. Newsom also announced a $5.1 billion drought response and water infrastructure package while adding 39 counties to the state’s drought emergency proclamation and urging residents to “help meet this challenge by stepping up their efforts to save water.”
The governor has blamed Republicans for the recall, although the effort was spearheaded by the California Patriot Coalition, which describes the signature-gathering campaign as an all-volunteer grassroots movement.
Undeterred by the polls was Mr. Economy, who noted that the governor’s support is still under 50%. He predicted that the recall would be held in November.
The governor has until the end of the month to persuade signers to remove their names from the recall petition, but Mr. Economy said, “We’re finding it’s just the opposite. People want to add their name to it.”
Mr. Faulconer pointed out that people are leaving California, which lost a congressional seat in the 2020 census for the first time in its history. He blamed the tax burden for the exodus.
“Our state is unaffordable because of Gavin Newsom’s failed leadership, which has forced countless families to flee our state,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Newsom’s homelessness proposal would expand his “Roomkey” and “Homekey” programs launched last year to house people in hotels and motels during the pandemic, including $8.75 billion to convert existing buildings into 46,000 units of housing.
He said he hopes to “end family homelessness within five years” and reduce the number of homeless, now estimated at 161,000, more than any other state.
“What we’re announcing today is simply unprecedented in American history,” Mr. Newsom said. “What we’re doing here today is multiples of what any state in American history has committed to to address this crisis of homelessness straight on.”
California’s net state debt last year was $55 billion, the ninth-highest in the nation, according to an analysis by Forbes.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.