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Champ or chump moment

Governor's legacy is riding on outcome of tax hike initiative

September 17, 2012|GEORGE SKELTON
  • Gov. Jerry Brown campaigns for Prop. 30 at James Lick Middle School in San Francisco last month.
Gov. Jerry Brown campaigns for Prop. 30 at James Lick Middle School in San… (Paul Sakuma, Associated…)

IN SACRAMENTO — The stakes could not be higher for Gov. Jerry Brown in the November election. He'll emerge either a savior or a failure.

Riding high or trampled.

Right now it's a tossup.

You may remember the debacle Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger encountered in his failed "reform" election of 2005; also the beating Gov. Gray Davis suffered during the energy crisis of 2001.

Added together they may approximate the quandary -- and the thumping -- that Brown would face if voters reject his tax initiative, Proposition 30.

Think about it. Here's the governor who pitched himself as uniquely qualified by experience and wisdom to clean up Sacramento's fiscal mess. "The knowledge and the know-how to get California working again," he advertised. "That's what I offer."

But in virtually the same breath, he diluted his power by making one of the most foolish campaign promises ever: "No new taxes unless you, the people, vote for them."

Then the governor who thought he could "knock heads together and get people to cooperate" wasn't able to budge Republicans into placing a tax measure on the ballot. He was forced to collect voter signatures for an initiative.

Brown dug himself in deep when he and fellow Democrats enacted a state budget in June that assumed voter approval of Prop. 30, which would raise sales taxes slightly for everyone and income taxes substantially on people making more than $250,000. The annual revenue boost would be $6 billion.

To protect the budget, the governor and lawmakers agreed to $6 billion in spending cuts that would be automatically triggered if voters shot down the tax hike. The cuts would be primarily aimed at education: $5.4 billion for K-12 schools and community colleges, and $250 million each for the two university systems.

That K-12 whack is the equivalent of knocking three weeks off the school year. The university cuts would certainly send tuitions soaring again.

So the governor who promised prowess would be presiding over the further devastation of California's once-envied public school system.

That would not fly with most Californians, I suspect. But the governor seems intent on pulling the trigger if voters kill his tax measure. Their decision, he'd assert. They were amply warned.

I've a hunch, however, that many voters would view it differently. They'd merely see the end result -- a crumbling education system on Brown's watch -- and not the political chess game leading up to the temblor.

Brown could go to a Plan B if he had one. He apparently doesn't.

A Plan B could be immediately calling a lame-duck session of the Legislature before it expires Nov. 30 and trying to negotiate a different package of tax hikes: car, tobacco, liquor, oil. Trade with Republicans for business regulatory relief.

Or start making the trigger cuts, but delay full implementation until a new, hopefully more pragmatic Legislature convenes in January. Then cajole, coerce and compromise.

Maybe by then Brown would realize it's time to renege on his inane promise. It has been a millstone. Which does he want to save: California or his honor?

Millions of people would be harmed by the education cuts. Only he would be wounded by the broken promise -- and not as severely as triggering the collapse of a school system.

Here's a Plan B-Plus: The Legislature raises taxes, Brown vetoes the bill -- wink, wink -- and watches quietly but approvingly as the lawmakers override his veto. He tried to keep his pledge, but legislators wouldn't let him.

Decades ago in his first gubernatorial reign, Brown and the Legislature performed a similar stunt on a bill reinstating the death penalty.

OK, maybe we're jumping too far ahead here.

Prop. 30 actually has a decent chance of passing. Then Brown would be riding tall and living up to all his billing and promise. He'd indeed be the astute old pro we'd hoped for, the rescuer.

He would have stabilized the budget and preserved the schools. Meanwhile, remember, he also pushed through overhauls of public employee pensions and workers' compensation insurance. He abolished wasteful redevelopment agencies. And he potentially saved billions by shifting custody of low-level felons from state prisons to less expensive local law enforcement.

He'd be in position to focus next year on education reform, a business-friendly loosening of the California Environmental Quality Act and development of renewable energy.

But first Prop. 30 must pass.

According to an online survey sponsored by Pepperdine University and the California Business Roundtable, Prop. 30 was holding its own last week among likely voters: supported by 54%, opposed by 40%.

Brown will have tons more money than the opposition -- $27 million to $2 million so far.

The wild card is another tax measure, Prop. 38, sponsored by wealthy civil-rights attorney Molly Munger. It would raise income taxes on everyone but the poorest and generate roughly $11 billion annually, mostly going directly to schools. The poll showed it slightly behind: 43% yes, 47% no.

But Munger has deep pockets. The Brown camp frets that she may fire off a negative TV volley against Prop. 30 and "the Sacramento politicians you can't trust with your money."

If she does, there's a Brown ally -- an independent committee created by Sacramento-based Democratic strategist Jason Kinney -- prepared to counterpunch against Munger.

"There's some political brinkmanship here," Kinney concedes.

"Considering how difficult it is to raise taxes in California under any circumstances and given all the drama," says Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, "it would be a major accomplishment for any governor to pass a tax increase."

For Brown, it will be a historic achievement or a crippling setback two years before he likely will be running for reelection.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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