Political Hay

Jerry Brown’s Dilemma

How to get away with raising taxes and avoiding budget cuts?

By 3.25.11

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At first it looked as if Jerry Brown had devised a no-fault way to cover California's expected $26.6 billion deficit. He would ask the legislature to mount a special election in June so the voters could agree to a five-year extension of several taxes about to expire. If they didn't, draconian program cuts would ensue, but they would know in advance what these would be (the usual suspects such as home health care for the indisposed; child welfare; education).

Special elections require approval of two-thirds of the legislature. This means he would need a few Republican votes. Most balked. They said the voters turned down tax increases on the 2008 ballot. Nevertheless, a few began to negotiate with the governor's staff, thinking they could wring out of him a concession to reform the state's wildly generous public employee pension scheme. This hasn't happened and the deadline for a June ballot is fast approaching.

Brown has options, none of them quite what he wanted. He can get the Democratic majority in the legislature to use some fancy footwork to circumvent the two-thirds rule and activate the election without any Republican votes. This would probably face legal challenges and, thus, delays. 

Alternatively, he can ask his organized labor friends to mount a signature drive to get an initiative proposal on the November ballot. They have the money and person-power to do it, but it also would give opponents six months in which to mount a campaign. Historically, California initiatives involving tax increases decline in support the closer they come to election day.

The Dems in the legislature claim they have already made about $14 billion worth of cuts in Brown's proposed budget. No one has seen the fine print, so it's impossible to know how many of these are bait to popularize the special election idea, how many are illusory, and how many are real. If all are in the last category, there would still need to be about $12 billion to be made up by way of voter approval in the special election.

Joining the muddied waters are two new statewide polls. The Field Poll reports that 56 percent of Californians favor extension of the taxes to avoid the big cuts. The Public Policy Institute of California, on the other hand, reports that only 46 percent of Californians favor it, down eight percent from January. Two polls can, of course, get different results depending upon how their questions are framed. Also, both polls in the past have sometimes oversampled Democrats. 

Whichever route the issue takes, Brown hopes the voters will approve the tax extension and thus he could take the credit for "saving" all those programs, each of which has a large constituency. If they turn down the extension, all he needs to do is blame the Republicans for causing the deep cuts that would follow.

It's all part the Democrats' Grand Plan in action: Steadily increase the number of people dependent upon government largesse, then announce cuts if need be and watch the demonstrations begun until the cuts are rescinded and government grows yet again. One way or another, taxpayers will pay for all this. In California at least they regularly tell pollsters they want balanced budgets, but don't want programs cut. 

As the saying goes, go figure.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”