Every governmental budget is inevitably a political document, and the crisis blueprint Gov. Jerry Brown proposes for California is, depending on your perspective, either breathtakingly cynical or strategically masterful.
Perhaps it's a bit of both.
When you round things out, the budget Brown introduced Monday proposes $12.5 billion in cuts and $12 billion in tax extensions that will have to be approved by voters in a special election this spring. It's a document that spreads its wrenching pain in a more-or-less balanced fashion, with what amounts to about a 50% diminution in the health and welfare spending on which the neediest Californians depend offset by reductions in benefits popular with the business community — for example, abolition of the state's 397 redevelopment agencies.
Even at more than $25 billion, the budget shortfall is only a little more than 1% of the state's annual economic output, which means that adoption of Brown's plan would give Sacramento a $1-billion reserve at the end of the 2012 fiscal year and a $2.4-billion budget surplus by the end of 2014. That's true even though the governor's staff believes the recent federal tax deal struck between President Obama and congressional Republicans will cost California more than $1 billion in lost revenue over the next fiscal year, and that employment will not rebound to pre-recession levels until the third quarter of 2016 — fully 87 months after the current economic crisis' onset.
So far, so evenhanded. Two categories of spending, however, are striking for their exemption from pain: kindergarten through 12th-grade education and the state's prison system. The prison guards, in fact, got one of the budget's only increases — from $8.9 billion to $9.1 billion, in part to "fully fund the salary and wages of authorized correctional officers" and to "correct for a decline in the number of overtime hours available" to guards.
If you're a cynic, you might see a payoff to the two unions — the California Teachers Assn. and the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. — without whose support and independent expenditures Brown could not have defeated Republican Meg Whitman. If you're of a more strategic turn of mind, what you might see is the governor's realistic calculation that without those two powerful and big-spending unions' support, his chances of winning the special election to approve the tax extensions are even less than that of a snowball in hell, which is about where they are now.
Brown, moreover, needs to win at least some of the Legislature's Republican votes to avoid getting the extensions onto the ballot by legal sleight of hand. On Monday, Rancho Cucamonga's Bob Dutton, the GOP leader in the Senate, said that he thinks "there's nothing in this budget to help stimulate the economy and create jobs. Senate Republicans believe higher taxes will further delay putting Californians back to work."
Tulare's Connie Conway, who leads the Assembly Republicans, said: "Assembly Republicans stand united as the last line of defense for California taxpayers. There are not votes in the Assembly Republican Caucus to place the same tax increases that voters overwhelmingly rejected less than two years ago back on the ballot."
That doesn't sound like much of a formula for bipartisan cooperation, though Brown could employ an exotic device to put the tax extensions before the voters by winning a simple legislative majority to attach them as an amendment to a ballot measure that already has qualified. Moreover, if the Legislature's Republicans sit out this round of the state's budget crisis, they'll simply have completed the long march into political irrelevancy that began with their embrace of Proposition 187.
Brown at 72 is a shrewd and experienced operator with California politics in his DNA. When it comes to his own party and these hideously painful cuts in social welfare spending, he's Nixon on his way to China. The partisan true believers in his own party simply are outflanked by his fiscal realism.
As he told John Myers of KQED on Monday, his vision of a governmentally realigned California includes reimagining his own role as governor. "There are very different views of what the state needs," Brown said, "and I'm not going to try to resolve that. As the chief executive here, I'm trying to forge a consensus, a wider agreement, get people out of their ideological positioning."
Brown's vision of a reformed state isn't a particularly humane one. Let's hope it's a sound one.