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Shock Doctrine

A Look at the Risky Politics of Jerry Brown’s Nothing-for-Everyone Fiscal Plan


The Reporter’s Handbook of Political Clichés requires every story about California’s budget to include at least one use of the phrase “draconian cuts,” as even a casual glance at the daily papers or a quick Google search (117,000 results for “draconian cuts California budget”) will confirm.

Alone among the state’s political players, however, only the Jesuitical-trained Jerry Brown this week seemed aware of the Greek root of this oft-used journalistic locution.

Capitol Letters

“If we don’t have the taxes, it’s going to be extremely difficult, even draconian,” the governor said as he released his new budget proposal. “And Dracon was not a very kindly chief executive.”

As classics scholars know, Dracon was a 7th-century-bce Greek politician often called “the first legislator” of ancient Athens. Also known as “Draco” (no relation to Harry Potter pal Draco Malfoy), he set forth the first constitution, a harsh and pitiless document notable for its requirement of the death penalty for most offenses against the law, even the most minor.

Brown’s reference to the right-wing Greco hardliner pointed to the consequences he foresees if the Legislature — and, more importantly, state voters — do not embrace key elements of his plan to erase a $25-billion deficit, a complex scheme framed by three interconnected moving parts:

• Cuts — Brown’s $85-billion general fund budget balances with $12.5 billion in cuts, many aimed at programs dear to fellow Democrats, including $3 billion in health-care and welfare benefits for the poor, $1 billion in higher education, and $300 million in state worker salary reductions. The one area largely spared: K-12 public schools.

• Realignment — The governor proposes the first stage of a sweeping process to transfer to local governments the responsibility — and funding — for many operations now run by the state. These include a host of taxpayer-financed efforts, from incarcerating low-risk prisoners and overseeing the giant welfare-to-work program to operating family services like child abuse prevention, adoptions, and foster care.

• Taxes — The plan’s controversial centerpiece is Brown’s attempt to seek voter okay of a June ballot measure to extend for five years $12 billion in temporary tax increases that lawmakers and ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger approved in 2009, which otherwise expire on July 1. These include a 0.25-percent surcharge on the state income tax, a bump in vehicle license fees, and a one-percent-higher sales tax rate.

Brown’s play, consistent with campaign promises to untangle the confusing structure of governance in California and to not raise taxes without a vote of the people, is a high-risk gamble. Schwarzenegger tried a similar move in a 2009 special election that featured a raft of budget-related ballot measures, including one to extend the temporary tax increases; voters overwhelmingly defeated it.

But the new governor is betting that voters will look more favorably upon his proposal, in part because the revenue from the higher taxes won’t go to Sacramento, but will be earmarked for local governments, which would control the programs shifted from the state to counties, cities, and special districts.

He believes that he can gain political support, not only because his plan avoids the kind of fiscal sleight-of-hand gimmicks used for the last decade to disguise the state’s financial condition but also because it includes real and substantial cuts, more dramatic than even his Republican predecessor attempted, which show he means to make government cheaper and more efficient. As a political matter, however, he must move quickly, while he’s still the new guy and enjoys public approval, unlike Schwarzenegger, whom voters despised by the time he set forth his budget ballot plan two years ago.

Brown faces big fights on the tax measure, without which he would have to cut another $12 billion from current state spending.

Republican leaders immediately announced that there won’t be a single GOP vote to even allow the tax plan to go before voters. Because the governor’s initiative needs a two-thirds legislative vote to qualify, Brown might need to revert to some sketchy, Democrat-only legislative maneuvering to push it onto the ballot, likely weakening its chances. Because he’s also calling for abolition of the state’s network of redevelopment agencies, and transfer of their billions in tax revenue to schools, he will face fierce opposition from powerful development interests.

“We’ll discuss this with representatives of the business community, we’ll talk to Republicans, different people,” he confidently told reporters. “I’ll try to win over as much support as I can. I will sometimes go into the lion’s den and see if I can’t satisfy them with less red meat than they’re accustomed.”

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