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Gov. Jerry Brown can't flub taxes again

In his first year, Brown missed opportunities to 'knock heads together'

December 08, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown
California Gov. Jerry Brown

From Sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown's big failure in the first year of his Sacramento sequel was the inability to deliver as advertised: as the wise old pro with the skills to untangle the gridlock and balance the books.

You may remember: The candidate with "the preparation and the knowledge and the know-how to get California working again," he proclaimed. "That's what I offer....

"Someone with insider's knowledge, but an outsider's mind."

He told me: "I really feel that I can both knock heads together and get people to cooperate."

Do give Brown this: The books are a lot more balanced now than they were when he took office in January — balanced with additional spending cuts and rosy revenue projections. The revenues didn't come in as hoped, and that's about to result in even deeper cuts — a continuing saga of slashing.

But Brown's No. 1 priority upon returning to the governor's office after a 28-year absence was to pull together a bipartisan legislative coalition that would authorize a special election asking voters to extend temporary tax increases. Simply put, he failed. Republicans balked. There's no need to rehash it further here.

So now the Democratic governor has changed routes and is headed straight to the voters with a different tax plan. But in detouring around legislative gridlock — created by a two-thirds vote requirement — Brown seems to be driving into a multi-vehicle smashup at the ballot box.

Politically, the governor appears to have survived the first-year failure. His job approval rating (47%) has held relatively steady, although disapproval (36%) has been inching up, according to a recent survey by the nonpartisan Field Poll.

But Brown can't afford to fail again in his second year. More important, California can't afford it.

If the governor can't sell voters on a temporary tax hike next November, it probably will mean a shorter school year and even steeper university tuitions — blows to K-12 quality and higher education affordability that will result in long-term damage to California's economy.

Additionally, fewer criminals will be locked up, the safety net for the poor and infirm will be further shredded and many parks will be shuttered. If you don't believe it, look around. Most of that is already happening.

"We cut the ongoing budget deficit by more than half, reduced the state's workforce by about 5,500 positions and cut unnecessary expenses like cell phones and state cars," Brown asserted in a prepared statement announcing his tax proposal. "We actually cut state expenses by over $10 billion…

"The stark truth is that without new tax revenue, we will have no other choice but to make deeper and more damaging cuts to schools, universities, public safety and our courts."

But to have any chance of succeeding with voters, Brown needs to nudge aside some well-meaning — if pesky — allies.

There's a pot full of other tax-hike initiatives also headed toward the ballot. It doesn't take any political genius to understand how that would turn out. There'd be a horrendous collision and irreparable voter confusion. And the response would be "no on everything."

Brown's plan, his political strategist Steve Glazer says, was carefully crafted "to find the sweet spot" for voters, labor and business.

Polling shows that voters favor the idea of taxing the wealthy. So does labor. Brown's plan would increase personal income taxes for individuals making more than $250,000, couples earning more than $500,000.

Business may be mollified by Brown's not targeting a specific industry or two, such as oil or liquor. Instead, he proposes raising the sales tax half a cent. Business prefers such a broad-based hike.

Brown's plan would raise nearly $7 billion annually for five years. "The new revenues will be [spent] only on education," Brown pledged. But, of course, the new money for education would free up other funds for such programs as healthcare and parks.

Additionally, Brown's initiative contains a constitutional funding guarantee for his so-called realignment program, the shifting of some state responsibilities to local governments, including incarceration of low-level prisoners.

The well-heeled California Teachers Assn. is expected to help finance the campaign.

Glazer says the Brown camp "will continue to have conversations with other folks" who are proposing rival tax measures.

If there ever was a time to cajole and coerce — to make backroom deals — this is it. Some big egos are involved.

One group, "The Think Long Committee" headed by globe-trotting billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen, is proposing the most ambitious and politically problematic plan. It would raise $10 billion, mostly for education, by extending the sales tax to services, closing a loophole for out-of-state corporations and reducing the income tax.

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