At this stage of his life, Jerry Brown is at the end of his rope.
Biologically, the matter’s pretty much out of his hands. Politically, however, Governor Gandalf is still fighting the good existential fight, laboring day and night in an effort to craft a solution to the state’s budget woes.
As a political matter, his biggest problem that needs fixing is this: most of the Republicans in the Legislature can just sit back and laugh at his exertions, getting exactly what they want by doing exactly nothing.
Not surprisingly, Brown is frustrated, exasperated and more than a little pissed off at the GOP members who are, variously, inexperienced, scared of losing their jobs and/or ignorant.
“If you’re not going to vote to extend taxes, if you’re not going to vote to cut, if you’re not going to vote to eliminate redevelopment, so what the hell are you going to do?” Brown said Monday night. “By the way, if you’re not going to do anything why do you take a paycheck?”
The boundaries of his dilemma are clear: He promised that he won’t raise taxes without a vote of the people; he doesn’t want a Democrats-only majority vote to put a tax extension measure on the ballot; he’s so far failed to peel off two votes from Republicans in the Assembly and two in the Senate to get a two-thirds vote for a ballot measure. And an all-cuts budget to eliminate the state’s $26.6 billion deficit is so draconian, it’s not clear Republicans would vote for it, not to mention Democrats.
So when he now vows, as he did Monday night, that a tax vote will happen “one way or another” — “no matter what anybody says across the street” — it’s clear he’s banking on some mechanism to get a measure on the ballot. But how, and on which ballot, are both unclear.
Brown’s approval rating of 48-21% (including 67-10% among Democrats, 45-23% among independents and 25-35% among Republicans) is far better than the Legislature’s at 16-70%, according to the Field Poll. But so what?
He can slap up a crappy You Tube behind-the-desk speech and argue “This is a matter of we, the people, taking charge and voting on the most fundamental matters that affect all of our lives.” He can go before Labor’s 2011 Joint Legislative Conference and cry “I say let California vote!” But he still seems stuck with just five options:
1. Get a 2/3 Vote: Threaten, bribe or cajole two members each of the Assembly and the Senate to agree to place on the June ballot a five-year extension of income and sales taxes and vehicle license fees passed in 2009. This was always Brown’s Plan A. But anti-tax forces have vowed to place on a stick the head of any Republican legislator who goes along with this idea, even if they get a spending cap, pension reform and regulatory relief for business in the bargain. “The moment of truth is rapidly approaching,” for this option, Brown said the other night.
2. Use the Majority Vote: Democrats in the Legislature have enough votes to place the extensions on the June ballot on their own by arguing that they’re part of the existing budget that’s in place until June 30. For starters, this might or might not be legally valid; worse, as a partisan measure, it might cause business interests who have expressed support to turn against it, to avoid being in league with the Democrats who will have conceded “only” budget cuts but no action on pensions or regulations.
3. Scramble for a June initiative: Some consultants have said it might still be possible to gather enough signatures for a June measure to extend the taxes, but writing a measure, getting approval, analysis, title and summary, circulating and collecting signatures would have to occur in record time. Most people think it can’t be done.
4. Adopt an All-Cuts Budget: Brown might still just throw up his hands and lay out another $14 billion in cuts. See above for why this option sucks.
5. Gather signatures for November: This could be a last-ditch attempt to keep his promise for a vote and avert massive cuts. The problem is that once they get past June, those extensions from the 2009 will have expired and continuing them, even temporarily, can more easily be characterized as tax increases. Polling has found about 55% support for extensions, 52% for temporary taxes and less than 40% support for tax increases.
Not a good choice in the bunch.
Voila! The Calbuzz Outside-the Box-Thinking Plan for Fiscal Integrity, Nuclear Safety and Peace in Our Time.
Here’s how it would work: Set things up so that the Democrats approve, with a majority vote, a conditional all-cuts budget that presumes no tax extensions. (We wonder if Republicans would vote for it.) Then gather signatures to place that on the November ballot, with a provision that if the measure fails the cuts will not occur because the 2009 taxes and fees will be re-instated for five years. As a practical matter, cuts can be delayed to occur after November. And costs can be shifted to local government for local responsibilities whether the measure wins or loses.
Then let Grover Norquist, Jon Fleischman, radio heads John and Ken and the rest of their not-our-problem cadre be forced to argue for the budget ballot measure while Democrats and labor argue against it.
In other words, make the “yes” position a vote for cutting programs for widows, orphans, fish and fawn and the “no” position a vote for freedom, justice and common decency on our streets and in our homes. Recall: in the history of ballot propositions in California, “no” beats “yes” 67% of the time.
Such a move would fulfill Brown’s promise for a vote on taxes while ripping the mask from the Republicans’ phony we’re-just-protecting-the-taxpayers stance and forcing them to take public responsibility for the real-life consequences of what their position truly means: a massive reduction in popular public services, starting with K-12 schools and higher ed.
Right now the right-wing has the best of all possible worlds: they cry crocodile tears about government spending without having to lift a finger to take ownership of the painful steps necessary to reduce it enough to balance the budget exclusively with cuts.
Using political jujitsu, however, the Calbuzz Plan flips the framework on the whole debate, and denies irresponsible Republicans their current luxury of indulging in total unaccountability.
Is it legal? We have no idea, but we’ve paid enough attorney fees to know that it wouldn’t be hard to round up a whole stadium full of lawyers willing to argue that it is. If nothing else, that at least will boost employment.