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Tim Rutten: No turning back in California budget mess

Jerry Brown risks being the third failed governor in a row. If he doesn't find a budget solution, the consequences will be dire.

June 18, 2011|Tim Rutten

In April 1519, Hernan Cortes landed near what's now Veracruz, Mexico, and scuttled his ships so that his potentially mutinous troops would have no choice but to follow him into battle against the Aztecs.

Gov. Jerry Brown's veto Thursday of a budget passed by his own party's legislative majority has something of the conquistador's either-or bravado. Brown has taken California politics into new territory with the first categorical budget veto since 1922, when the state began requiring a consolidated annual spending plan. Now, the question is: Is anyone willing to follow him off the beach?

The 73-year-old governor acknowledged the difficulty of attracting followers Thursday in his post-veto news conference. "The political class is deeply divided," he noted. "If we can't find a way to get around that, then we will irreversibly enter on a pathway of decline."

Calling Sacramento's political class "divided" is world-class understatement; it's divided only in the sense that a shattered window is "divided" into a thousand pieces. Ever since he took office, Brown has been trying to sell the Legislature's Republican minority on balancing the budget with a combination of deep cuts and moderate tax extensions, with the latter to be submitted to the voters for approval. It's all gone nowhere because, these days, the California GOP is less a political party than it is a sort of political Taliban taking its anti-tax dogma from talk show imams and Internet heresy hunters.

Brown's fellow Democrats, particularly those with the strongest ties to the public employee unions, are reluctant to make further cuts and skeptical about the passage of tax extensions in a special election of the sort the governor seeks because turnout inevitably will be low. Moreover, the statewide Field Poll continues to show declining public support for any tax extensions, even the moderate ones Brown is proposing. Concurrently, his approval rating — and presumably, influence with the electorate — also is falling, according to Field.

The rest of the Democratic leadership, meanwhile, has lost confidence in Brown's ability to convince the GOP to take any deal. "The governor's constant references to his January proposal ring hollow if he is unable to deliver Republican votes," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said Thursday. The governor repeatedly has warned that, if he can't win Republican consent for a special election on tax extensions, he will submit a budget balanced through cuts alone, a prospect he calls "disastrous." Thursday, however, Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) said few Democrats would agree to deeper cuts than they've already approved. "If you go further than what we did yesterday, I think [Brown] has a hard time getting a majority vote," he said.

For his part, Brown risks becoming the third failed governor in a row, unable either to win concessions from the opposing party or effectively lead his own. The prospect of decline he forecast Thursday ought to be taken seriously because the stakes — not only for this state, but also for the national and global economies — are so high. Consider the implications of the brute numbers involved, and the financial turmoil over the battered Greek and Portuguese economies seems minor key: If California were an independent nation, its economy would be the world's eighth largest. If it were a member of the European Union, it would have that bloc's fifth-largest gross national product. Even in the aftermath of the Great Recession, California churned out $1.9 trillion in goods and services last year, which is 13% of the output of the American economy, the world's largest.

We may not be too big to fail, but the consequences of our failure to set Sacramento's finances right are too big to contemplate.

Brown campaigned on the promise that he would submit any new taxes, including extensions, to the voters for approval. That was a mistake. Like the citizens of other financially failed states, such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland, Californians continue to be gripped by the fantasy that they can have public services and meet public obligations without paying for them. The governor needs to leapfrog the delusion and find ways to raise revenue that don't require a two-thirds vote. Then he can submit a realistic budget that closes the budget gap with a combination of cuts and additional revenue that Republicans can't block.

It won't make him popular in the short term, but it will make him a leader.

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