Every time we had a surplus, because I don't think government has a right to take one dollar more than government needs, we gave the surpluses back to the people in the form of tax rebates. We gave back over eight years $5.7 billion to the people of California. We stopped the bureaucracy dead in its tracks, the same way I would like to stop it at the national level. -- Ronald Reagan on the 1980 campaign trail
The way Ronald Reagan tells it, it was a golden age of government during the eight years he served as the great, helmsman of California's mammoth ship of state.
Reagan regularly regales his audiences with stories of how he rooted out waste in California, reformed welfare, restored a bankrupt government to fiscal soundness and rebated state government surpluses to the people.
While Reagan is remembered with respect and even some affection here as a surprisingly reasonable governor, the statistics of his administrations's performance tell a different story, indeed several different stories, than Reagan dispenses in his presidential campaign.
It is true that the state government returned $5.7 billion to taxpayers during the two Reagan administrations, including $4 billion in property tax relief. What Reagan does not say was that he also sponsored what was then the largest tax increase in California history, and that state spending and taxes more than doubled during his tenure.
Nearly every major state tax rose substantially during Reagan's years in Sacramento. The state share of the sales tax was increased from 3 percent to 4.75 percent. Corporation taxes were nearly doubled, from 5.5 percent to 9 percent. The tax on banks went from 9.5 percent to 13 percent. The maximum on personal income taxes rose from 7 percent to 11 percent and brackets were narrowed to put more persons in a higher tax bracket.
Under Reagan, the annual state budget increased from $4.6 billion to $10.2 billion. The operations portion of the budget, over which the governor has more control, increased from $2.2 billion to $3.5 billion. State taxes per $100 of personal income, considered by some analysts to be the fairest measure because it adjusts for population and price changes, went from $6.64 to $7.62.
This is not to say that Reagan failed in his efforts to control the cost of government.
"Reagan was not so much an underachiever as he was an overcommitter," says onetime legislative aide Judson Clark of the Sacramento consulting firm, California Research. "He did some important things, but not as much as he said he would do and not as much as he said he did."
Reagan slowed the rapid growth of the state workforce, which increased nearly 50 percent during the eight years of his Democratic predecessor, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown.
The growth was less than half of that under Reagan, rising from 158,400 to 192,400 positions. If higher education (where the governor has only indirect control) is excluded, the growth was 7 percent -- from 108,090 to 115,090 jobs and at a time when state workforces nationally were growing rapidly.
Reagan also succeeded in cutting by 40 percent the capital outlay budget, which increased 200 percent in the Pat Brown years. While the tax rebate bills had Democratic authors, Reagan had to fight to get some of the rebates through the Democratic-controlled legislature. And if the $4 billion in property tax relief is subtracted from Reagan's budgets, they just about kept pace with inflation during his administration.
Overall the real picture is substantially different than the one Reagan paints for his audiences. The most fundamental difference is an ironic one, for it can be said that Reagan led the way in restructuring a highly regressive state tax system into a more progressive one that now takes a proportionately larger share of its revenue from banks and corporations.
This arose as much from Reagan's initial ignorance about the workings of government as from anything else.
"We weren't only amateurs, we were novice amateurs" Lyn Nofziger, his communications director at the time recalled once.
When Reagan took office in 1967, the state faced a deficit caused by an unfunded change in accounting methods promoted by Hale Champion, Pat Brown's last finance director. Under the California constitution, Reagan had to balance the books.
Democratic legislative leaders, who had been seeking the imposition of state income tax withholding, tried to convince Reagan that withholding would produce enough immediate cash flow to cover the deficit. But Reagan was opposed to withholding on principle.
"Taxes should hurt," Reagan said in turning down the withholding plan that he was finally forced to accept in his second term.
The staff of the California legislature, esecially of the state Assembly, was as sophisticated about government as Reagan was unknowledgeable. Under the leadership of Democratic Speaker Jesse Unruh, the legislature had conducted several studies which found that the rapidly rising property tax had become a burden to the elderly and other low-income homeowners. The studies showed that the property tax actually was more regressive than the sales tax which in California exempts food and prescription drugs.
Unruh's solution, which had widespread liberal support, was to boost state income and corporation taxes, and even the sales tax if necessary, and rebate some of the money to property owners. Reagan also had promised property tax relief during his campaign against Gov. Brown, who had repeatedly blocked Unruh's attempts to launch a property tax relief program.
Reagan's cabinet minutes and interviews at the time reveal that the new governor was unfamiliar with much of the legislative process. But they also show that he had an intuitive understanding of politics, recognizing that voters would blame Brown and not him for any tax increase because of the deficit he had inherited.
Reagan compromised, agreeing with Unruh to incorporate progressive features of Unruh's unsuccessful 1965 tax bill in return for the temporary discarding of withholding.
The tax bill demonstrated to a skeptical Sacramento that Reagan was a far better politician than advertised.
Reagan's other prized achievement as governor was the 1971 Welfare Reform Act, which was worked out in face-to-face negotiations with another Democratic speaker, Bob Moretti, who wound up respecting Reagan as a politician and liking him as a person.
"When I took office, California was the welfare capital of the nation," Reagan says on the stump. "Sixteen percent of all those receiving welfare in the country were in California. The caseload was increasing 40,000 a month. We turned that 40,000 a month increase into an 8,000 a month decrease. We returned to the taxpayers $2 billion and we increased grants to the truly needy by 43 percent."
He is correct about the increase in the grants for the "truly needy," whose stipends had not been increased during Pat Brown's administration. But Reagan uses legislative projections on the caseload figures that portray an ever-increasing problem.
In the two-year period before the welfare reform measure was approved, the monthly caseload increase -- reaching 40,000 on five occasions -- averaged 26,000. The decrease averaged 3,500 a month from the time the law took effect until Reagan left office at the end of 1974.
Still, the welfare measure -- which combined tougher anti-fraud controls desired by Reagan with increases in grants contained in a Democratic bill -- was an achievement. The $2 billion figure that Reagan uses, however, is based upon the "worst case" legislative projection.
A. Alan Post, then the legislative analyst and a highly respected figure in state government who was frequently a Reagan critic, said this about the welfare bill in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1974:
"It would not have happened if the governor had not pushed for it. I think the legislature took some of the rough edges off the Reagan proposal and made it a much better program. But the net effect was good, and it would not have happened if the governor's real concern had not turned the program around."
The welfare measure, at least, moved California in the direction Reagan wanted to go. The same cannot be said for the Therapeutic Abortion Act that Reagan signed into law in the first year of his governorship.
Sponsors of liberal abortion legislation had chosen California as the testing ground in the spring of 1967. California's law at the time permitted abortions only to save the life of the woman, and sponsors of what was then the nation's most liberal abortion bill claimed that thousands of abortions were being performed illegally in backroom clinics and across the border in Mexico.
In those days the leading body of opposition was the Roman Catholic Church, which promoted a letter-writing campaign that produced more mail than most legislators had ever seen.
Reagan, by his own admission, had never thought much about the issue. At one press conference Reagan exhibited almost total confusion on the issue, freely contradicting himself and describing as "loopholes" provisions that sponsors claimed were the major purpose of the bill.
Reagan said in interviews later that his father-in-law, Chicago surgeon Loyal Davis, had talked to him in favor of the bill and that Francis Cardinal McIntyre had lobbied him against it.
Now, Reagan says he regrets signing the bill and insists that doctors and hospitals use "mental health" as a loophole to perform abortions which he had not intended. Church spokesmen at the time told Reagan that would happen.
In 1967, the year the measure was enacted, there were 518 legal abortions in California. In 1978, the last full year for which figures are available, there were 171,982 abortions in California hospitals and clinics. The total number of abortions performed from 1968 through 1978 is 1,230,359.
Since abortions in California are available to welfare recipients on the same basis as anyone else, it is generally believed that the huge increase in abortions contributed to the decrease in the welfare caseload.
Reagan, alone among the surviving major presidential candidates, favors a federal constitutional amendment limiting abortions to those necessary to save the life of the woman -- essentially the California statute before Reagan signed the liberalizing bill.
Reagan's record as governor cannot be measured by statistics alone. He had a shaky first year in office, but the Sacramento consensus is that he performed more than adequately on a number of issues.
No scandal marred Reagan's terms in office. His appointments, drawn heavily from the business community, were generally of high quality. Reagan gave his cabinet members wide latitude and only rarely interfered in their decisions. Several departments were reorganized. The state's scattered consumer agencies were formed into a single Department of Consumer Affairs.
Occasionally, Reagan approved truly innovative programs, as in authorizing conjugal visits for prison inmates with good behavior records. Reagan supported legislation increasing the length of sentences for criminals and the funding for state prisons.
Originally, he drastically slashed the budget for state mental hospitals but wound up restoring the funds and giving more to community health programs, then being pioneered in California. State expenditures for mental health doubled during the Reagan administration.
He entered office waging what some called a vendetta against the University of California, scene of a controversial 1965 "free speech" demonstration that proved a harbinger of future antiwar demonstrations.
"Obey the rules or get out," thundered Reagan. He called for campus authorities to expel "undesirables" and he pushed, under threat of budget cuts, for the university to abandon its historic "free tuition" and charge students rather than the taxpayers for budget increases.
When embattled University of California administrator Clerk Kerr unwisely provoked a vote of confidence in the first month of Reagan's term, the university board of regents fired him, with Reagan voting in the majority. Subsequently, Reagan persuaded the university regents to accept tuition under another name.
But the budget-cutting he threatened never materialized. As one former legislator put it, "Reagan maumaued the university" while continuing to increase its budget.
State spending on higher education during Reagan's tenure rose 136 percent compared to an overall state spending rise of 100 percent. The increase (163 percent) had been greater under Brown, but higher education enrollment which doubled during the Brown years rose only 40 percent under Reagan.
It was the environmental performance of the Reagan administration, however, that was the greatest surprise.
"A tree's a tree -- how many do you need to look at," Reagan had said during his campaign for governor. Environmentalists viewed his elections with emotions ranging from suspicion to hostility.
Reagan fought this impression by choosing William Penn Mott, a nationally known parks director, as director of state parks. He picked Norman (Ike) Livermore, a lumberman who also was a Sierra Club member, as his director of resources.
Together, Livermore and Mott compiled a generally enviable environmental record for the Reagan administration. A total of 145,000 acres, including 41 miles of ocean frontage, were added to an already impressive state park system. Two underwater park preserves off the coast were set aside Bike trails, boat harbors and urban parks were improved. A major bond issue for park development was supported. The endangered Middle Fork of the Feather River was preserved.
What some think was Reagan's finest hour as governor came on the issue of the Dos Rios dam, a proposed 730-foot structure on the Middle Fork of the Eel River.
The Eel is one of California's few remaining wild rivers, a stunningly beautiful stream where steelheads spawn.
When the Army Corps of Engineers backed by the state water bureaucracy, came forward with the high dam at Dos Rios, nearly everyone assumed that a decision in its favor was a foregone conclusion.
At the time the water bureaucracy in California was considered even more powerful than the highway lobby.
Against the array of big battalions, Reagan contributors in southern California, was a handful of Reagan staffers (including Livermore, Reagan finance director Caspar W. Weinberger and present chief of staff Edwin Meese), a few conservationists from Round Valley, which would have been flooded by the dam, and some remnants of Indian tribes that had been herded into the valley by Army troops late in the 19th century.
Round Valley contained gravesites of the Yuki Indian tribe, said some archeologists. The gravesites and some of the valley land are ours by treaty, said the Indians, and it was their plea that proved decisive.
"We've broken too damn many treaties," said Reagan in turning down the Dos Rios dam. "We're not going to flood them [the Indians] out."
Reagan's record as governor, as old foe Unruh describes it, was "not as good as his supporters hoped and better than his critics feared." He left office with a moderate and generally satisfactory record. He also departed, according to the findings of veteran California pollster Mervin Field, with a nearly 3-to-2 favorable rating with the public.
But with his talent for oversimplification, Reagan has taken this defensible record and built it into a mythology of unsurpassed achievement.
However good Governor Reagan may have been his record does not match up to what Candidate Reagan is telling the voters this year on the campaign trail.