YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The budget perils of mixing government and politics

Gov. Jerry Brown and Republican legislators have backed themselves into corners over tax increases.

January 20, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

It's often said that good government is good politics. Example: State politicians passing a balanced budget on time. But the opposite is not always true. Good politics can lead to lousy government.

One example: Republican legislative candidates easing their way through a party primary by taking the "no taxes" oath administered by intimidating Washington, D.C., gadfly Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform.

That's good short-term politics, at least in a GOP primary.

But after the Republicans get elected they become boxed into a corner. They're afraid to think independently about whether some tax hike might be a good trade-off for, say, a real state spending limit or business regulatory relief.

What really got me thinking about good politics/bad government, however, was Gov. Jerry Brown's unprecedented, seemingly foolish campaign promise not to raise taxes without the voters' approval.

"That was very clever," Rob Stutzman, a senior strategist for Republican loser Meg Whitman, told me recently.

Whitman's advisors felt they needed to portray Brown as a taxer-and-spender in order to win. That's why we saw all those lying TV ads depicting the old skinflint as a tax addict and extravagant spender when history proves the opposite.

Brown's pledge to give voters the final say on taxes cut the legs out from under Whitman's message.

But now the newly inaugurated governor is in a corner. And he can't get out of it without breaking his pledge, the last thing he should do.

Brown's campaign promise surrendered powers given to him by the state's founders.

A California governor has the sole power to sign or veto bills, which enact statutes. The Legislature can override a veto by a two-thirds vote. And the voters can repeal a bill. But there's no constitutional provision — only Brown's pledge — that says a statute must pass from a governor's desk to the state ballot.

In fact, there's a legal question about whether Brown can even abdicate his power.

The Legislature and governor could place an advisory measure on the ballot and ask voters whether they want to extend temporary tax increases for five years to balance the budget and spare schools from further cuts, as Brown proposes. But the voters' response would be nonbinding, many believe.

Without getting too far into weeds, the Legislature and governor can place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot, but generally not statutes, unless they're bonds or their purpose is to amend previously passed voter initiatives. Our elected representatives don't need any help from voters to raise taxes. They can — and they're supposed to — do it on their own by enacting statutes.

So that brings us back to Republicans and the governor confining themselves to their corners.

To place a tax measure on the ballot — assuming it's legal — would require a two-thirds vote of each legislative house. That means at least two Republicans in each house voting for it. And there's no sign of any GOP stirring.

There has been rampant speculation about Democrats attempting a legally suspect, too-tricky-by-half maneuver to pass a ballot tax measure on a simple majority vote. They could, for example, propose that voters amend some previously passed initiative.

But this speculation is coming primarily from Republicans — in and outside the Capitol — who are rooting for a Democratic train wreck.

Democrats would be vulnerable to charges that they were being sneaky. It would make credible fodder for anti-taxers during the ballot measure campaign. And GOP lawmakers could rationalize not taking a painful vote on taxes and spending cuts, arguing they had been shoved aside by Democrats.

If Democrats tried to place a tax extension on the ballot with a majority vote, it would play directly into the hands of Republican lawmakers and Norquist types.

"I can assure you, no one is really seriously considering it," insists Nathan Barankin, spokesman for Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). "It's legally questionable and subject to long litigation. And politically, it's about as undesirable as it gets."

So Brown's political ploy during the gubernatorial campaign is making it more difficult for him to govern. That's clear.

Or is it? Wait a minute.

"It's an academic point," notes Brown strategist Steve Glazer. And he's right.

If the governor can't even generate a two-thirds vote merely to place a tax measure on the ballot, it's even more unlikely that he could garner a two-thirds majority to actually extend the taxes without voter approval.

So maybe Brown's still the smartest guy in the room. He's giving Republicans political cover: They'd only be allowing voters to decide.

I asked Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga last week whether there was any way he would consider voting to place the tax issue before the electorate. "None that I can think of," he said. "It would be totally irresponsible. Almost an insult" after voters blocked a tax extension two years ago.

But then Dutton added this caveat: "Not until we clean up the mess."

And how could that be done? "A total overhaul of our regulatory environment, stop spending more than we're taking in, the whole gamut."

It's a reed Democrats should grab and cultivate: Offer a spending cap, regulatory streamlining and relaxation of workplace rules, along with Brown's deep budget cuts. Toss in more public pension reform.

Republicans know California's red ink cannot be cleaned up merely with more slashing. No Republican — in the Capitol or outside — has offered an all-cuts solution. There isn't one that's politically sustainable.

Either Republicans decide what they really want and bargain for it or they become totally irrelevant. That would be bad government and bad politics.

Los Angeles Times Articles