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Chiang's Delicate Dance On Single-Payer Health Care

Sally Schilling / Capital Public Radio

Sally Schilling / Capital Public Radio

This is the fourth installment in a series of Capital Public Radio interviews with the prominent candidates for California governor. You can find all the interviews here.

California Treasurer John Chiang’s effort to strike a balance in his run for governor between support for progressive policies and an image of fiscal prudence could prove tricky on the issue of single-payer health care.

“I support universal care – I believe all Californians should be covered,” Chiang told Capital Public Radio in an interview this week. “And I support the approach of single-payer, if they want to eliminate the inefficiencies that exist in the system.”

But, he was quick to add: “If we’re gonna bring in a new health care system, then we ought to tell people how much it’s gonna cost and how we’re gonna pay for it.”

Yet when asked how much it would cost and how he’d pay for it, Chiang didn’t say. Instead, he raised his own questions about what a single-payer system might look like in California.

As the federal Affordable Care Act was written, Chiang noted, debate centered on which services would be covered. “They included 10 core areas. We’re gonna have to decide, are we gonna have 10 core areas? Are we gonna have 15 core areas? Are we gonna have seven core areas? And then price it out.”

Two of the other three Democratic candidates for governor support single-payer – Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin. The third Democrat in the race, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, opposes it – but backs universal health care.

Chiang’s delicate dance on an issue that fires up much of the liberal Democratic base – but is anathema to many other Californians – perhaps best exemplifies the lane in which he’s seeking to run his gubernatorial campaign.

“Progressive on social issues, and also can balance a checkbook,” he says.

The latest poll shows Chiang in a third-place tie among the six candidates seeking to replace termed-out Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018 – trailing both Newsom and Villaraigosa, and tied with Republican businessman John Cox. But he’s raised a lot of money – nearly $10 million, as of the last reporting period in June. He’s banking on that to help him catch up.

Chiang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, was born in New York City and grew up in Chicago. He likes to say he’s held all three of California’s fiscal offices: Board of Equalization, Controller and Treasurer.

It was during his two terms as controller that he picked two political fights that helped define his career.

When then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued executive orders during California’s budget crisis to reduce state workers’ pay in 2008 and furlough them in 2009, Chiang refused to implement them – forcing Schwarzenegger to sue. The governor ultimately won the legal battles.

And when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a budget passed by his fellow Democrats in the Legislature in 2011 that the governor deemed unbalanced, Chiang docked lawmakers’ pay. He cited Proposition 25, which voters had approved the year before. The Legislature sued, and Chiang lost.

“I was trying to enforce the will of the voters,” he said this week.

Asked how he would respond as governor if the federal tax overhaul backed by President Trump and congressional Republicans hurts California’s economy and state budget, Chiang declined to get into specifics.

“You have to look at everything on the table,” he said, referring to both spending cuts and tax increases.

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