When you listen to the California candidates for governor talk about what they’d do if elected, do you feel like you’ve heard all before?That's because you have.
The three leading contenders (Democrat Jerry Brown and Republicans Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner) have stuck to familiar political promises about keeping taxes and spending low. And when it comes to new policies, they have balked, since new stuff costs money and the state is out of money.
But one genuinely new idea has emerged during this campaign, not that it’s getting much attention. What’s the idea?
Academic enterprise zones.
The notion is buried, appearing on page 12 of the much-mocked, photo-heavy magazine that Whitman’s campaign has printed and distributed at considerable expense. It says:
“Meg will take advantage of academic excellence at our universities and create economic opportunity zones to encourage businesses to locate within a specified zone around these institutions. Tax incentives offered within these zones would be focused on hiring workers, promoting research and development, increasing access to state funds and loans and encouraging a close collaboration with universities.”
How would this work? The Whitman campaign indicates it doesn’t have the details worked out.
There is reason for skepticism. Enterprise zones – designated areas where certain incentives and tax benefits are given to companies to encourage them to locate there -- have a mixed record of producing jobs in the inner city areas where they’ve been used. In many cases, companies have used the incentives to increase profits without hiring more workers.
But at the very least, Whitman deserves a little credit for offering something new and for reminding us that our colleges and universities are crucial to economic growth and job creation. Universities not only educate people for jobs; they are a source of new research and technologies for jobs. And California leads the country here;
Perhaps a tight and well-crafted set of enterprise zones (it’s important to make sure big companies don’t use California credits to support hiring in other states) might keep more of the college graduates taxpayers subsidize in the state.
Of course, such zones will only be effective if California’s public universities remain strong, both as centers of research and of education. They’ve been severely weakened by years of budget cuts – cuts made necessary because of the growth in spending on other state programs – particularly prisons. Elsewhere in the same policy magazine, Whitman pledges to build more prisons.
So let’s hold the applause.