California primary sets stage for new fiscal leadership

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LOS ANGELES — California voters set the stage for the race to replace departing Gov. Jerry Brown in Tuesday's primary election.

The state's "top-two" primary sends the top two finishers in each primary race to the November election, regardless of party or the amount of the vote they receive.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, and Republican businessman John Cox will face off in November in the governor's race.

Among the defeated Democratic candidates were the former Los Angeles mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, and State Treasurer John Chiang.

The victor of the governor's race — Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor, begins as a large favorite — will replace Jerry Brown, whose final budget, now being wrangled over by the legislature, boasts a $6 billion surplus.

When Brown was inaugurated in January 2011, California faced a $27 billion projected budget deficit.

The Brown administration’s financial policies have been favorable for the bond ratings, which have risen during his eight years in office from the triple-B/A-minus range to AA-minus across the board.

Democrat Fiona Ma is in the lead to replace Chiang as Treasurer in November’s election.

Ma, a member of the state Board of Equalization and former Assembly member, had 43.2% of the vote in early tallies and is likely to face Republican Greg Conlon in November.

Conlon was about 85,000 votes ahead of fellow Republican Jack M. Guerrero for second in the vote count as of mid-day Wednesday, according to the Secretary of State's office. Final results are days or weeks away, due to California's heavy use of vote-by-mail ballots. It would mark the second time Conlon has made it to the general election in the treasurer’s race. He was defeated by Chiang in 2014.

Ma is a certified public accountant and former speaker pro tempore of the Assembly. On the Board of Equalization, she led reform efforts that transformed the once powerful board, riddled with charges of nepotism and questionable spending choices, into one that merely oversees property tax collection.

Ma also supports a bill to create a banking system for cannabis to make it easier to collect tax revenues; and legislation that would bring back redevelopment agencies to increase the state’s investment in affordable housing.

Incumbent State Controller Betty Yee, who teamed with Ma in efforts to reform the Board of Equalization, had more than 60% of the vote in early reports. She will face Republican Konstantinos Roditis.

Yee has been advocating for tax reforms to get the state away from its dependence on wealthy taxpayers that make revenues vulnerable to stock market swings.

Roditis is running on a concept called trickle-up taxation that would eliminate state taxes and push all that revenue to the cities and the counties.

Voters continued the trend of supporting bond measures.

The passage of Proposition 68, a $4.1 billion bond measure with 55.5% of the vote indicates voter memory of the state’s five-year drought hasn’t faded. It will provide $2.83 billion for park improvements and $1.27 billion for flood protection, levee upgrades, water recycling and groundwater pollution cleanup.

It remains to be seen if voters will approve an $8.9 billion water bond measure in November that has similar features, but also would pay to improve canals for farm irrigation and include $200 million for Oroville Dam repairs and also fund other reservoir upgrades.

A lockbox on gas taxes signed into law by Brown last year to fund transportation improvements scored 80.8% of the vote to pass. The measure amends the state constitution to ensure that the $54 million in anticipated revenues from the Senate Bill 1 gas tax are dedicated to transportation spending.

“Prop. 69 gives voters assurance that transportation funding will go directly toward improving their city streets and roads,” said Rich Garbarino, president, League of California Cities and council member, South San Francisco in a statement. “That’s what voters want and the overwhelming victory is a signal that fixing roads is a high priority for Californians.”

Opponents of the gas tax garnered enough signatures in April to put a repeal measure on November’s ballot, which could make the lockbox effort a moot point. The League opposes efforts to repeal the gas tax.

The law increased the gasoline tax by 12 cents a gallon, the diesel excise tax by 20 cents a gallon and the diesel sales tax to 5.75% from 1.75%. It also raised annual vehicle registration fees by up to $175. And it created a $100 annual fee, starting in 2020, for zero-emission vehicles, which don't pay gas taxes.

Gas tax opponents targeted for recall an Orange County Democrat who voted for the package in the state Senate, and they appear to have succeeded Tuesday, with an almost 60% vote in favor of recalling Josh Newman.

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Bond elections Fiona Ma State of California California