Jerry Brown, governor and philosopher king, often invokes the ideas of Josiah Royce, a California pioneer-era professor, who long ago prescribed for the Golden State the values and virtues of shared sacrifice.
In his widely praised inaugural address, Brown several times cited Royce’s “philosophy of loyalty” as the key to unlock the death grip that lobbyists, special interests, and rote partisans have long held over Capitol politics.
“We can overcome the sharp divisions that leave our politics in perpetual gridlock,” Brown said, “but only if we reach into our heart and find that loyalty, that devotion to California above and beyond our narrow perspectives.”
In the first days after his speech, Brown was lauded from the bar stools of Sacramento to the editorial pages of the state’s newspapers for his kumbaya call to community and an end to the brain-dead politics of ideological polarization and greed-head grubbing of government.
Then he released his budget.
Turns out “shared sacrifice” means you sacrifice and I share in the spoils.
Within minutes of Brown’s unveiling of a dramatic financial workout plan for California’s intractable deficits last week, the email boxes of political reporters began filling up with special-interest pleadings, a cacophony of political caterwauling comprising countless self-interested appeals aimed at maintaining the status quo.
“This budget is an effort to shock this state out of its state of denial, and that’s a good thing,” Bill Hauck, president of the influential California Business Roundtable, told Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Morain. “It’s honestly motivated.”
After years in which governors and the Legislature routinely passed quicksilver stews of spending plans mixing bookkeeping gimmicks, deferred hard choices, and ever-increasing borrowing, however, Brown’s tough-love call for $12 billion in new budget cuts and an equal amount in higher taxes has ignited the highest-stakes debate in a decade, one affecting every Californian who uses highways, parks, or beaches or has a driver’s license or a kid in a public school, college, or university.
Brown’s complex proposal requires a series of favorable actions, not only by lawmakers but also by voters, which face big obstacles from at least three key sources:
PARTISANS: Although some legislative Democrats are willing to give fellow party member Brown a pass on making the same deep cuts in social welfare programs for the poor, disabled, and elderly that they opposed under Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, some from liberal or urban districts are digging in, arguing that the governor instead should advocate new or higher taxes on oil and tobacco companies, online retailers, or professional-services firms.
Republicans, meanwhile, are already under heavy pressure from anti-tax lobbying organizations to oppose Brown’s effort to place a measure on the June ballot that would extend the duration of income-, sales-, and vehicle-tax increases from two years (as approved in the 2009 budget) to five. Although the governor does not propose new general taxes, conservative groups like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the state party have threatened Republican lawmakers with political retribution if they hand Brown any of the handful of GOP votes needed — three in the Assembly and two in the state Senate — to give voters the power to decide whether to tax themselves.
“From the perspective of taxpayers,” argues Republican Party Vice Chair Jon Fleischman, “any official who supports placing a tax increase on the ballot is expressly supporting that tax increase.”
SPECIAL INTERESTS: Brown’s budget is backed by some of the most influential interest groups in the state — most notably, the powerful California Teachers Association, which supports the plan because it would spare K-12 education more cuts if voters ultimately approve the tax extensions.
However, other forces are already lining up to fiercely fight Brown — most notably California’s network of hundreds of redevelopment agencies, which exist because they receive a big chunk of local property-tax revenue that the governor would redirect to schools and other community services, and which he wants to phase out of business.
TIME: Perhaps Brown’s greatest enemy is the calendar; in order to put his linchpin tax plan on the ballot, lawmakers need to send him a budget in March, an extremely optimistic scenario given the long drawn-out budget battles of recent years; without passage of the measure in June, state and local governments would face yet another $12 billion in cuts.
“The March 1 objective of a two-thirds vote? I’ve been here four years, and I haven’t seen a timely two-thirds vote take place,” one Democratic lawmaker told reporters. “I would agree that’s a little ambitious, but I’m sure we’ll do the best we can.”
The clock is ticking.