San Francisco Chronicle: Business must help Jerry Brown succeed

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By Jim Wunderman

Jerry Brown has one of the toughest assignments ever given to an American political leader. California’s government and the services it provides are in a profound hole. At a time when we need to rebuild and reform, he enters a political arena governed by fear, interest groups fiercely protecting the small turf they still hold, and a system that allows any well-organized force to stop change. The business community – a large portion of which I am honored to represent – faces a choice: Do we gear up for battle or do we sincerely try to help Jerry Brown succeed? I argue we must help him succeed.

Let’s look at what’s at stake. Our schools need help. California’s students’ ability to read is ranked 49th in the country by the U.S. Department of Education. Compared globally, the United States is ranked 29th in science and 35th in math out of the top 35 industrial nations. Your neighborhood school might be good by California standards, but that is a very low bar indeed.

California’s water system faces a 60 percent chance of catastrophic failure in the next 20 years, according to the state Department of Water Resources, and is now considered one of the top 10 threats facing the United States, a list that includes a terrorist attack and a nuclear bombing.

California has the third-highest unemployment rate in the country, and a jaw-dropping 2.25 million people face the heartbreak of being unable to provide for themselves or their family.

Our state’s ability to deal with these problems is hamstrung by a looming $28.1 billion deficit on an approximately $90 billion general fund state budget. Californians have rejected nine of the nine past tax proposals. That means more service cuts are on the way.

Many other states are not suffering our fate. And, if you love California, let me say it … you should be angry. I know members of the business community are. Yet having reached bottom, we can and we must fix this.

We need jobs, and in this global economy that means more exports and more foreign investment. We can work with Gov. Brown on increasing exports by better connecting our companies with U.S. Commerce Department services and trade promotion offices run by organizations like the Bay Area Council. A foreign direct-investment program and structured programs for visiting trade delegations can quickly increase foreign investment in our state. In California, trade means jobs.

We must get job-producing projects moving faster. Many regulations are essential, but the process of getting through the regulatory hoops takes far too long – and everybody knows it. We can bring real manufacturing jobs back to California by making the approval process more certain.

We need to end the political battles that hold our education system hostage. Let’s agree our schools need both reform and more money. A network of local business groups can help school districts follow the lead of the seven that bravely pursued the second round of Race to The Top, and reward these districts by leading local campaigns for more funding.

Finally, Brown frequently spoke of a vast civic education campaign to enable an honest conversation about government and fiscal realities. The Bay Area Council, which led the most successful charge yet for a constitutional convention to fix our broken state government, is eager to help that conversation.

All is not lost, but we do have great challenges, and the business community wants to be part of the solution.

Jim Wunderman is the president of the Bay Area Council.

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