Thursday, February 03, 2011

Jerry Brown's budget strategy

California's Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed an ambitious plan to close the state's $25 billion budget gap for the 2011-12 budget year beginning in July. The key political strategy behind it is to call the Republicans on the scam they're been running for decades, always preaching that voters can get tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts, while imagining that any cutbacks in state service won't discomfort them.

He's proposed to close the budget gap with $5 billion in one-time funding, which apparently is directed toward non-continuing expenses. He's proposed funding half the deficit by specific program cuts he's proposed and the other half by extending temporary taxes that would expire this year. Consistent with the campaign promise not to raise taxes without a vote of the people, he's asking the legislature to put those proposals on the June ballot. Along with all that, he's proposing a big reorganization that would put more of the funding of local services back with the localities. Ever since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the state has been funding large portions of the local services.

He's put out his proposal and is pressing the legislature hard to enact it, including approving the ballot measure. He has said that if the revenue measures don't pass, then we can double the cuts already proposed to get an idea of how services would be affected. But he's refused to be more specific, because he says he doesn't want to look like his blackmailing the voters over the tax extensions. The Republicans are so far opposing the ballot measures by repeating "tax increase" over and over. But Jerry is putting them on the spot and challenging them to put up or shut up over what cuts they would propose making for the $10 billion that he proposes to be financed by the tax extensions, which really are an extension of current temporary tax rates.

The Republicans, of course, will neither put up nor shut up. They are trying to keep the scam going. But Jerry's challenge to them is fairly easy for voters to understand: I'm being up-front with you about the solutions I see, and I'm asking the voters to approve the tax part just like I promised. The Republicans are being up-front because they are opposing the revenue half of my plan and saying they want more cuts but they won't tell you what they propose to cut.

Even if the ballot measures lose, Jerry's own credibility will be enhanced. And the process itself begins to reset the anti-tax, anti-government narrative for a lot of people. It also takes full account of the fact that California is a semi-- plebisitary democracy with all the initiative and referenda measures on which we vote every year. So he's treating the voters like partners in this, rather than ducking the tax issue like the plague the way Democrats have taken to doing.

This report gives a somewhat garbled version of that strategy in action, Jerry Brown says bid for budget deal 'on track' Sacbee Capitol Report 01/26/2011:

$25.4 billion deficit through a mix of cuts and tax extensions, said Republicans who oppose a ballot measure to extend temporary tax increases have not given him a list of demands in their negotiations.

He invited Republicans to release an "all-cuts" budget that could be required if tax extensions are not approved, saying, "Is it really fair and honest to keep that secret?"

But Brown himself, fearful of being seen as threatening to voters, won't release such a document himself.

"It's so horrible that we don't like to release it," he said.
He's has been taking some actions that are mostly symbolic but resonate well with the messaging of efficiecy and responsible government. He is cutting down the number of state-funded cell phones for state employees. And reducing the state vehicle fleet. His press release on the latter, Governor Brown Orders Immediate State Car Cutback 01/28/2011, he says:

Brown said his goal is to halve the number of the state’s passenger cars, trucks and home storage permits - which allow state employees to use passenger cars for their daily commute.

"Fifty percent is a starting point. If we find more waste, we’ll make more cuts," Brown added.
This is one of the most common complaints about public employees, one that has been circulating forever, it seems. "Why, ole Fred that lives on my block, he has a state car and he drives that around all the time for personal use." I've always suspected that if it were possible to investigate a representative sample of those complaints, a large portion of them would be groundless or greatly exaggerated. But by taking on a problem that is embedded in popular folklore (however great or small it may be in reality), Brown is taking a tangible action that people can understand. And who is going to object to cutting down on excessive use of state vehicles?

The legislature has to make a decision on the ballot measures by March for them to appear on the June ballot.

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