It's no secret that Californians are not fond of tax increases. The last time the state's voters were asked to extend temporary sales, income and car taxes to help balance the budget, in May 2009, they rejected the proposal overwhelmingly. That was only the latest such rejection here in the cradle of the American tax revolt, where revenue-based solutions to budget problems are often anathema for voters and politicians alike.
Now comes Gov. Jerry Brown, vowing to try again. In the face of an enormous, $25.4-billion deficit, Brown has called for a five-year extension of the same temporary taxes Californians rejected in 2009, which he hopes to present to voters for their approval in a special election in June. Whether he can push through such an unpopular proposal in the midst of an economic downturn that has left more than 2 million Californians out of work depends on quite a few things going right.
First of all, Brown needs to have the tax extension placed on the ballot. That alone will be a heavy lift because it requires the approval of two-thirds of both the state Senate and the Assembly, which means that at least four legislators from the famously tax-averse GOP will have to vote for it. Already, Republican leaders are saying they won't approve any such thing. In his State of the State address Monday, Brown demanded that opponents not stand in the way. "When the elected representatives find themselves bogged down by deep differences which divide them, the only way forward is to go back to the people and seek their guidance," he said. "It would be irresponsible for us to exclude the people from this process."
We agree that the Legislature should put the measure on the ballot. The state's problems are dire and immediate, and a decisive plan of action is required to bring spending and revenues into line. The question of whether that should be done solely through spending cuts, or whether the cuts ought to be offset by the extension of the taxes, is the kind of question the Legislature has been politically incapable of addressing in recent years. Because Republicans are so adamantly opposed to tax hikes and Democrats object to many spending cuts, the outcome has been stalemate, late budgets, fiscal gimmicks and a mutual willingness to kick the can down the road.
A second obstacle is that even if the measure gets on the ballot, Brown needs to persuade voters to approve it. But there's some disagreement about how to do so. In the days leading up to his State of the State address, Brown made it clear that he was disinclined to launch a fear-based campaign to scare voters into approving the taxes. He has declined to say — nor did he detail in his address — what exactly would be included in an "all-cuts" budget if the tax extensions were not approved. "It's so horrible that we don't like to release it," he told reporters. Some political consultants have agreed that a campaign based on fear could backfire.
Other Democrats, however, are worried that if Brown doesn't lay out those horrendous alternatives, voters simply won't agree to raise their own taxes. Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who believes that voters need to be told the full story, has said, for instance, that an all-cuts budget could require that the K-12 school year be shortened by more than a month.
Our view is that voters should be given all the information they need. Not that they should be scared or manipulated or that exaggerations should be made. But the fact is that budget decisions require context, and can't be reached in a vacuum. Voters can't make smart decisions about extending the temporary taxes unless they know what will happen if they don't do so.
Even assuming the taxes are extended, the governor's proposed budget already calls for deep cuts in healthcare programs, welfare, state universities and community colleges. If voters reject the extensions — which will mean $12 billion in additional cuts — will the school year really have to be shortened, as Lockyer warns? Are Republicans right that a crackdown on waste, fraud and abuse can close a big portion of the shortfall, or will deep and substantive cuts be required in the sorts of programs that middle-class voters generally approve of, such as transportation, public safety and K-12 schools? Could state parks end up being sold to developers, as environmentalists fear? Could overcrowded prisons be forced to release criminals?
One thing we know is that Republicans have not yet presented a credible alternative to Brown's proposal. In his address Monday, Brown urged them to do so. "Do I like the choices we face? No. I don't," he said. "But after serious study of the options left us by a $25-billion deficit, the budget I have proposed is the best I can devise. If any of you have other suggestions that you think are better, please, share them with us."
Republicans should take the opportunity to lay out the details of the leaner state government they say they'd like to see. Most of this debate is yet to come. It should be held openly and honestly — without exaggeration or pandering or fear-mongering or oversimplification — so voters can make the kind of intelligent budget choices that are desperately needed yet so often avoided.