California State Assembly Speaker John Perez clearly believes in the premise of the “Leading From the West” speaker series, hosted by the Judith and John Bedrosian Center on Governance and Public Enterprise at the USC Price School of Public Policy. As the featured speaker on Oct. 22, Perez said that in the west, we tend to be more diverse and less constrained by super-traditional approaches.
“It lends itself to a degree of innovation that I think you see up and down the west, particularly in California,” Perez said. “So that means your approach to leading has to be responsive to both that diversity and innovation. When we look at future economic growth globally, so much of it is based around the Pacific Rim.”
Perez backed up his statement by noting that California is recovering from the economic recession faster than 44 states, and that Pacific coast neighbors Oregon and Washington are among the few states bouncing back even more successfully.
California hasn’t always been such a shining example. When Perez took office in 2008, people were saying California was unmanageable.
He identified the greatest structural impediment California faced as being one of only three states that required a super majority to pass the budget. In 2010, the voters approved going to a simple majority, and since then, the state government has passed three balanced budgets in a row for the first time in 30 years.
“We had to decide what was the more responsible action: to make cuts you didn’t want to make or to pretend we didn’t have to make them and result in insolvency,” Perez said. “We went through that, did soul searching collectively, talked about what our priority should be, and we figured out a way to get through that worst period of crisis.”
During his hour-long conversation with Bedrosian Center Director Raphael Bostic, Perez described term limits as the single-most negatively impactful governing decision in California. In addition to limiting the years members could serve in the Senate and Assembly — cutting short the stays of legislators who had the experience to get things done — the voter referendum also sliced the budget of each chamber by half, causing a power shift as legislative staffers moved to lobbying firms and brought their institutional memory with them.
Term limits also are the reason Perez recently announced that he will run for state controller next year.
“If I could stay on in the Assembly, I’d do it in a minute,” Perez said. “I love being a legislator. If you look at the focus I’ve had in office, it’s really been around stabilizing the economy and finances of the state. Outside of being able to stay in the legislature, the place I think I can have the greatest impact in is the controller’s office.”
Perez said his priority in the next session is to continue to move forward on the state’s economy, which has gone from a $60 billion deficit when he got elected to now having a $1.2 billion reserve. He intends to emphasize that part of the recovery was based on short-term taxes that will expire, making sure these one-time and short-term revenues aren’t confused with ongoing revenues in future budgets.
“Given his role in helping to shepherd the California legislature from being severely challenged to functioning smoothly, Assembly Speaker Perez was the perfect kickoff to this year’s ‘Leading From the West’ series,” said Bostic, a USC Price professor. “Speaker Perez had excellent insights on leadership, policy and politics, and demonstrated why he has been successful in Sacramento. He was a great model for those seeking to follow his encouragement that people interested in policy engage in the political process.”
In addition, USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott, who introduced the event at Town & Gown, noted that Perez’s passion and aptitude at making a positive difference closely align with what the school seeks to instill in its students.
“He covered a lot of different topics and, as Speaker of the Assembly, was able to give us inside opinions,” said Alice Wang, a second-year Master of Public Policy student at USC Price. “I wish it could have been longer so we could dig deeper. It’s a very good opportunity for students to be exposed directly to such a good politician in the practice area.”
Perez advised students looking to build a career in the policy space to find an issue about which they are passionate, but to build skills in other applicable areas because the chances are small they will be able to get a job in the spot that drew their passion.
“People who truly love policy discussions have a lot of ways they can engage,” Perez said. “I’m a fan of them coming into a legislative body and bringing that passion and expertise or they can go to an advocacy group. What you’ll find, I think, much like you’ll find in an academic setting, is that you think you’re passionate about one thing and, as you’re exposed to these other areas, you find a passion that you never knew you had before.”