Following the back-and-forth of California's calamitous politics in Sacramento is like shopping at the grocery store: Everything costs more these days and most things have an expiration date.
Take Gov. Jerry Brown's most decisive pledge from last year's campaign. It's even worth quoting directly from one of his most prominent campaign ads that featured Brown, close-up and in darkened background, soberly addressing the viewer:
I'm not going to give you any phony plans or snappy slogans that don't go anywhere. We have to make some tough decisions. We have to live within our means, we've got to take the power from the State Capitol and move it down to the local level closer to the people, and no new taxes without voter approval. We've got to pull together, not as Republicans, or as Democrats, but as Californians first. At this stage in my life, I'm prepared to do exactly that.
This was a smart and solid ad, and it connected with voters. But it apparently came with an expiration date of June 27, 2011. That was the day Brown decided he'd sign on to a sham of a budget deal negotiated solely with Democrats and agreed to their tax increase demands -- campaign pledges be damned.
Brown claims that after half-a-year of seeking Republican support for new (even temporary) taxes, he's thrown up his hands four days before the new fiscal year and concluded a bipartisan deal is impossible. "I thought we were getting close, but as I look back on it, there is an almost religious reluctance to ever deal with the state budget in a way that requires new revenues."
So much for pulling together as Californians first.
The one-time seminary student may have a feel for faith, but his intended insult to Republican resolve shows he maybe should have listened to his teachers more intently. The GOP is not gripped by the zeal of the converted, but by a common-sense conviction that government is too big, taxes are too high and that California's not merely struggling -- it's in serious trouble.
Brown, on the other hand, is falling for the seductive nature of the modern government budget process -- a heady experience tailor-made for liberals who believe government spending is first among equals of every public policy choice.
The specifics of the "handshake budget" between Brown and his Democrat allies are clearly not the stuff that responsible governance is made:
• $4 billion in higher projected revenues in 2011-12
• $150 million cut to University of California and California State University
• $150 million cut to state courts
• $200 million in Amazon.com online tax enforcement
• $2.8 billion in deferrals to K-12 schools and community colleges
• $300 million from $12 increase per vehicle registration fee
• $50 million fire fee for rural homeowners
Higher projected revenue. Online tax enforcement. Increased auto fees. Deferrals to schools and community colleges. Levies on rural homeowners.
This isn't a budget. It's a bridge loan from the government to itself. And every Californian is paying for it.
Where are the incentives for new hiring? Where are the regulatory reliefs for a private sector fleeing piece by piece to friendlier business climates? Where are the reforms of a runaway pension system that threatens to bankrupt the state? Nowhere.
Jerry Brown has a gift for campaigning and a feel for public opinion. Without these attributes, he could never have gone this far -- and certainly not staged his epic comeback to the Governor's Office 36 years after first arriving there.
This time, however, he's critically misjudged both the politics and the politicians and surrendering to a course of action he ran against to get elected. Worse, no one (not even he) even pretends that this corrupt deal will address any of California's structural problems.
Brown may believe he's achieving a Zen-like control over his fate, but it doesn't look like it from here. He's plummeting in the polls and jeopardizing his straight-shooter image. All because he apparently can't stand up to Sacramento's spending culture. This is what the collapse of a governing philosophy looks like.
At this stage in his life, Brown would be wise to re-watch last year's campaign commercials and remember what he promised.
The voters surely do.