Gray Davis has been governor of California for just about 10 days now, but the general character of his administration can already be discerned. The era of mean government, at which both George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson excelled, is over. The era of cheap and inadequate government continues apace.

On the plus side, the budget that Davis unveiled last week is mercifully free of the screw-the-scapegoats blue-penciling that Wilson practiced. There are modest increases for welfare recipients and foster parents. Illegal immigrants are no longer ineligible for prenatal care. The income threshold that a family has to meet to enroll its children in the Healthy Families health – insurance program has been raised from 200 percent to 250 percent of the poverty line — which means that more kids in uninsured working-class families will qualify for medical care. And by pledging to have the University of California accept all in-state high school graduates who finish in the top 4 percent of their class, Davis seems to have found a way to reintegrate UC without violating the terms of Proposition 209.

Also, Davis appointees include a number of forthright progressives, such as longtime environmental activist Mary Nichols, who’s the new state resources secretary, and union official Steve Smith, who’s the new director of the Industrial Relations Department. As was the case in both the Carter and Clinton administrations, however, progressive bureaucrats are going to be administering largely centrist policy.

For when it comes to actually appropriating money, Davis is just as tight as his two Republican predecessors. The difference is that neither Deukmejian nor Wilson entertained particularly ambitious plans for improving or increasing public-sector services (excepting prison construction), while Davis has made clear that the very measure of his administration will be its ability to improve K-through-12 public education. In his first week in office, he set higher standards for the state’s schools, principals, teachers and students. He also failed to appropriate the funds required if those schools, principals, teachers and students are going to meet those standards.

In the Davis education plan, for instance, all high school seniors beginning in the year 2003 will be required to pass a rigorous graduation exam. All teachers will be subject to a peer-review process, and the genuine incompetents may well be handed their pink slips. Schools that rank in the bottom 50 percent of student achievement will receive state assistance: If they improve, they’ll get a cash bonus; if they fail, they may be restructured or closed.

Well, some schools will be part of this up-or-out program. Actually, there’s money enough to enroll just 200 of the state’s 8,000 K–12 schools, selected at random, in this project. Nor is there money to create remedial summer school, or after-school programs, for failing students, nor money for significant merit increases in teacher pay. All in all, Davis is increasing state spending on schools by $192 per K–12 pupil, but that still anchors California among the lowest of the states, with annual expenditures about $1,000 less than the national per-pupil average. Indeed, such are the constraints on state spending that Davis isn’t appropriating a penny more for schools than is mandated by Proposition 98 (which directs 40 percent of the general fund to K–12 education) — though fixing the schools is avowedly his number-one priority. Much in the manner of President Clinton, Davis has devised pilot programs for universal problems.

Gray Davis took office only to discover that the state coffers had been pilfered by two expert safecrackers, Pete Wilson and the late Howard Jarvis.

Wilson’s handiwork was the tax cut that he forced on the state during last year’s budget negotiations with the Legislature. “The reason there’s no money here while other states are upping their budgets is simply $2.4 billion in tax cuts,” says Jean Ross, director of the nonpartisan California Budget Project. “There’s a billion-dollar reduction in DMV fees and a billion in dependent-child credits, which sounds great, but which is slanted toward the upper end of the income scale.”

Jarvis’ mischief was more profound. In the 20 years since the enactment of Proposition 13, the Jarvis-authored measure that made it all but impossible for local school districts to rely upon new property-tax revenues to fund the schools, per-pupil spending and per-pupil achievement in California have spiraled jointly downward. So long as Proposition 13 is on the books, the only way the state can seriously increase its spending on schools is to enact a dedicated increase of either the state sales, income or bank-and-corporation tax. There is no evidence that such a thought ever so much as entered the craniums of Governors Deukmejian and Wilson. As for Davis, this most preternaturally cautious of pols has repeatedly vowed to govern within the limits of the state’s initiatives. Revisiting Proposition 13 is about as likely on Davis’ watch as a law requiring the ritual slaughter of the first-born.

And yet, a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) shows overwhelming support for all the education programs Davis would devoutly wish to fund if only the money were there. Fully 84 percent of Californians favor increased merit pay for teachers; 91 percent support remedial summer and after-school programs; 83 percent back a reduction in class size to no more than 20 students in grades K-through-6. (By contrast, just 26 percent support more spending on prison construction, a decline of 16 percent in the past four years, and a further indication, if any is needed, why Dan Lungren’s law-’n’-order gubernatorial campaign bombed with California voters.)

There’s no question that restoring accountability to public education — in particular, requiring that teachers meet a certain standard of performance — is, in this age of diminished trust in government, a prerequisite for asking the public to pay more tax dollars to improve the schools. But a governor’s political capital is never higher than at the beginning of his term, and a bolder, or more tone-deaf, governor (Al Checchi would have been both) would likely have already embarked on both halves of this equation — insisting on the accountability and asking the voters to fork over more in taxes. Should Davis persist in running the state within the limits that Howard Jarvis devised two decades ago, he certainly won’t be betraying any campaign commitments: He never so much as intimated that the price of better education would be higher taxes. All he’ll betray, if he hews to this course, is California’s potential — and the lives of millions of its children.

If Davis’ failure to speak of higher taxes comes as no surprise, his failure to speak of income inequality is, by contrast, a bit of a shocker. For Davis takes office after a decade in which the California middle class has dramatically shrunk, in which the number of working poor has grown hugely, in which California has declined to 48th among the states in its level of economic equality. And he takes office in part on the strength of his support within organized labor, for which higher wages are a key issue, and the Latino community, which is the anchor tenant of the state’s low-wage sector.

To his credit, Davis has pledged to restore the state’s requirement for overtime pay for workers compelled to work more than an eight-hour day (a Wilson-appointed commission repealed this long-standing proviso). But the words “minimum-wage increase” have yet to cross his lips. Nonetheless, it’s widely believed that either the Legislature or the state Industrial Welfare Commission will enact a hike, and that Davis will support it.

As with education programs, there’s considerable evidence that the public will support measures that mandate more adequate incomes for California’s workers. In 1996, state voters overwhelmingly backed an initiative raising the minimum wage. In 1997, an L.A. Times poll showed 70 percent local support for requiring city contractors to pay a “living wage” ($7.50 an hour with health insurance, or $8.50 without) to their employees. And this month’s new Public Policy Institute poll shows that 56 percent of Californians believe that the state is made up of “haves” and “have-nots” — as contrasted to just 39 percent of Americans who answered this way in a recent nationwide Gallup Poll.

In short, there’s political space for Davis to undertake some innovative policies that promote greater economic fairness — not just higher minimum wages, but extensions of living-wage protections to a broader range of workers. Just as there’s political space for him to ask more of California taxpayers in return for better schools. The idea that this most painfully incremental of pols would charge ahead on either front still seems unlikely. But if Howard Jarvis is to remain the effective governor of this state for all time, why even bother to hold elections?

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