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Jerry Brown shouldn't leave hard choices to voters

The governor and legislators should handle the job they were elected to do.

March 28, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Gov. Jerry Brown signs bills to reduce the states deficit by $11 billion as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, left, and Sen. Mark Leno look on.
Gov. Jerry Brown signs bills to reduce the states deficit by $11 billion… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)

From Sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown said something startling and unsettling last week. The new/old governor admitted, in essence, that he's not up to the job.

Nor should he be trusted to attempt it, Brown seemed to say.

At least that's the way it sounded to me.

Here's what he said, referring to his effort to balance the state books by calling a special election so voters can decide whether to extend higher tax rates for five years:

"This is a matter that's too big, too irreversible, to leave just to those whom you've elected," Brown said via YouTube in what he called a report to the people. "This is a time when the people themselves can gather together in a special election and make the hard choice....

"This is a matter of we the people taking charge and voting on the most fundamental matters that affect all of our lives."

The "irreversible" bit puzzled me at first. A Brown spokesman explained that if the taxes weren't extended and the $26-billion budget deficit had to be entirely solved with spending cuts, it would cause irreversible harm, especially to schoolchildren.

But this is a problem "too big" for the people's elected representatives? For the governor of the globe's eighth largest economy? A governor with such vast powers?

"The hard choice" is what a governor and Legislature are paid to make. It's what the voters insist on.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger learned that when he called a special election on his "reforms" in 2005 and they were emphatically rejected.

"I got the message," Schwarzenegger said at a Capitol news conference after the shellacking. "These people want us to take care of the job right here in this building and not to go to them if things don't work out....

"The people [said] 'Don't come to us with all of your stuff.... Work it out at the Capitol.'"

Schwarzenegger did go back to the people with another special election in 2009, this one on deficit reduction. But it was only because he and the Legislature had to. There were constitutional amendments to adopt and citizen initiatives to amend, and the voters legally needed to sign off on those. But again, they unequivocally voted no.

Based on reams of emails I received, many voters were confused and incensed that the politicians were intruding on their lives once again.

Because of the election, the planned four-year duration of higher income, sales and vehicle taxes approved by Sacramento was cut in half. All those temporary tax hikes will expire by July 1. They're the increases that Brown now wants voters to extend for five additional years.

But this is what's infuriating if you agree with Brown that the taxes should be extended: He doesn't need to ask the voters. The governor and Legislature can raise or extend taxes on their own. (In 2009, they goofed by linking the taxes to the election.)

They've been agonizing and wasting time on a proposed special election — one that would cost taxpayers tens of millions — only because of an unfortunate Brown campaign promise that has gummed up governing. To inoculate himself against baseless charges that he was a tax-and-spend liberal, Brown surrendered gubernatorial power by pledging to give voters the final say over taxes.

That's not the way the nation's Framers planned it. They designed a republican form of government in which public policy decisions would be made by elected representatives, not directly by citizens. We've strayed far from that concept in California over the last few decades. And we're suffering the consequences.

I called Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law and a constitutional scholar. He has written extensively about republican democracy.

"We elect representatives to make the laws," he said. "It should be their responsibility to act in the best interests of the voters. If the voters don't like what they do, they can be voted out of office."

"It is unnecessary and undesirable to go to the voters," added Chemerinsky, who worries particularly about a small turnout in a special election and potentially poor prospects for passage of the tax extension.

"The idea of cutting another $12 billion would be truly devastating to the state of California. And it's the responsibility of the governor and Legislature to protect us from that."

But Brown shows no sign of reneging on his campaign vow. Even if the governor did, he'd still need two Republican votes in each house to reach the required two-thirds majority for a tax increase.

He also needs a two-thirds vote to call a tax election, although Democrats are talking about possibly trying to do it with a simple majority. That would be swiftly challenged in court and lead to a Democratic train wreck.

To hold an election some time in June before the taxes expire, Brown must reach a deal with Republicans very soon. That still could happen.

Some sensible Senate Republicans realize they have an opportunity to bargain for "reforms" in state spending, pensions and business regulations. And, besides, they don't want to slash K-12 schools, universities or public safety programs any more than Democrats do.

But the Democrats' patrons in labor will need to compromise on the GOP's demands, and they've been stubborn.

In signing bills last week that filled $11 billion of the deficit hole, mostly with spending cuts, Brown warned that without the tax extensions, "it's going to be much, much worse" and there will be "a lot of tears."

The governor, with legislative help, has the power to stop the bleeding and the weeping. Too bad he's trying to abdicate it to voters.

Despite what he says, Brown is big enough for the job and capable of making the hard choices. And that's what "we the people" expect.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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