Debra J. Saunders
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, January 16, 2011

Can Jerry Brown do it?

When he unveiled his budget, the California governor boasted that he was delivering a spending plan without “gimmicks, tricks and unrealistic expectations.”

On the one hand, Brown presented some bold changes in his spending plan by proposing a realignment of state and local government. Also, Brown has ordered some small but symbolically important cuts, such as slashing his own office’s budget and halving the number of state employee cell phones.

On the other hand, it’s hard to understand how Brown expects to pull off the linchpin of his spending plan – an extension of tax increases enacted in 2009. Brown is asking the Legislature to put a special-election ballot measure before voters in June that would resume increases in personal income taxes and extend increases in sales tax and vehicle license fees for five years in order to raise $9 billion annually in revenues.

The obstacles Brown faces are enormous. In 2009, 65 percent of California voters rejected Proposition 1A, which temporarily would have extended those tax increases. Voters also rejected Proposition 1D, a measure that would have redirected tobacco tax revenues destined for early childhood education programs to the General Fund. Brown wants voters to revisit the tobacco-tax money pot, too.

That makes two Brown-inspired measures planned for the June ballot, on top of two other measures – term limits, taxing tobacco more – that already have qualified. Voters tend to get ornery when they feel Sacramento is overworking them. Ask Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose political reform measures tanked in 2005.

Schwarzenegger may have won re-election in 2006, but he never recovered from those ballot measure losses.

Brown faces two other big obstacles: Democrats and Republicans.

Democratic legislative leaders have voiced grudging support for Brown’s proposed cuts in MediCal, welfare spending and higher education. The question is: Do they have the resolve to stick with those cuts? It took them 39 days past the budget deadline last year before Democrats – Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg – could agree on a revenue plan. Even then their “tax swap” was a let’s-pretend-we’re-doing-something exercise.

Brown needs a handful of GOP votes to meet the two-thirds majority threshold needed to qualify a measure for the ballot. So far, he has none.

As Riverside County GOP Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries told me, “It’s pretty risky for any Republican to go out there. One: The Democrats will beat you up in a (general election) campaign. Two: The Republicans will beat you up in a (primary election) campaign. And three: The voters have already spoken that they don’t support tax increases. So what’s the incentive?”

Brown adviser Steve Glazer answers: “Downsizing of state government unprecedented in their political careers.”

There’s talk of using arcane language in Proposition 25 to maneuver around the two-thirds requirement, but there’s another reason the GOP leadership should cough up the votes to meet the established two-thirds rule – they’ll have a bigger place at the bargaining table.

In the negative column, as conservative Fox and Hounds blogger Joel Fox points out, Brown is asking voters to raise taxes without having won pension reforms or dangling a spending cap.

On the plus side, Democratic operative Roger Salazar noted, Brown’s spending cuts have a lot of appeal for Democratic and Republican voters who think there’s a lot of waste in state government. “It’s probably not as high as people think it is,” said Salazar. But by paring his own budget and targeting cell phones, Brown has demonstrated that “if we’re going to ask for cuts and additional sacrifice and an extension of the revenues, we’re going to show you, it’s going to be used wisely,” Salazar said.

In the negative column, Brown didn’t campaign on the need to raises taxes, only on the promise not to raise them without voter approval. He did not come to Sacramento armed with a mandate to raise taxes.

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