Governor Jerry Brown's foolproof plan to deal with California's $26 billion deficit hasn't quite gone off the rails, but it's teetering.
The plan, announced early in his new term this year, was to call a special election in June to let the voters decide whether to extend for five years several taxes about to expire. At first, the idea polled well, including majority support for the tax extensions. This, along with some legislative budget cuts, would solve the problem. If the voters said "no" to the tax extensions, severe cuts would ensue, but the voters would have been warned in advance. It was the perfect way for the Democrats to avoid being held responsible for cutting popular programs. If the people voted against the tax extensions, they couldn't blame the legislators.
Getting to the special election required a two-thirds vote of the legislature. The Democratic majority is not quite lopsided enough to do this without some Republican votes. Gradually, Republican resistance to the costly special election stiffened. Brown taunted the Republicans to come up with their own plan for solving the deficit. His self-imposed deadline of March 10 for the enabling vote came and went. A small group of Republican legislators began meeting with Democratic counterparts and the governor's staff to see if a deal could be struck. They would deliver the votes in exchange for public employee pension reform. That's the last thing the Democrats want, for these unions are the state's biggest special interest and the financier of many Democratic legislative campaigns.
Next, the Republicans came forth with a comprehensive list of four dozen elements to a deficit-reduction plan. Brown acted surprised, though this is what he had requested. He abruptly cut off talks with them. Now it's back to politics as usual. He's about to barnstorm, including a visit to the district of the Senate minority leader who, Brown says, "...is leading the charge to block any other alternatives other than massive and destructive cuts." This translates into English as "blah, blah, blah, blah."
Meanwhile, voter support for the special election and the tax extensions is slipping. Brown's main option now is to get a petition drive mounted to collect enough signatures for a November ballot issue. This is high risk. Tax issues on the ballot historically see their support decline as election day comes closer. If they are not well above 50 percent when campaigning begins, they are usually defeated. November is well beyond the June 30 date when the 2011-12 budget is required by law to be adopted. If it loses in November, the last arrow in Brown's quiver will be to blame the Republicans -- again. Yet it would be the Democratic majority that must enact the "massive and destructive cuts." Who will the people blame for that?
Many Democratic legislators don't want to think about that, so they are turning their attention to more serious business. They have introduced 2,323 bills this year, covering such urgent issues as a revised definition of olive oil, Parks Make Life Better Month, tax credits for commercial space vehicles, Spay Day, regulation of caffeinated beer, how to describe a dog pound, and regulation of pavement reflectivity in order to reduce global warming.