No one ever accused Jerry Brown of being a master of understatement.
In his first State of the State address of this term, California’s new/old governor invoked the struggle for democracy in Egypt, a bold rhetorical bid to pressure Republican lawmakers to allow a statewide special-election vote on a key element of his plan to erase the state’s $25-billion deficit.
“When democratic ideals and calls for the right to vote are stirring the imagination of young people in Egypt and Tunisia and other parts of the world,” he told state officeholders crowded into the Assembly chamber in Sacramento on Monday night, “we in California can’t say now is the time to block a vote of the people.”
While Brown’s big-swing rhetoric won him headlines across the nation, not to mention a post-speech interview on the BBC, it did little to change minds among the GOP’s minority caucus in the Capitol, whose stone-faced members sat on their hands for most of his 14-minute address.
The governor needs the support of at least five legislative Republicans to get a measure on the June ballot to give voters the power to decide whether to extend $12 billion in temporary income, sales, and vehicle taxes that were raised in a 2009 budget deal; his tax plan is paired with an additional $12 billion in cuts Brown wants in education, social welfare, and parks programs. He also faces opposition from some local officials who are fiercely fighting his call to take $1.7 billion in property taxes away from redevelopment agencies, effectively ending their future operations.
As a political matter, after a month of low-key, backroom talks with legislators, Brown has now made the calculation that it is time to make his case in public and to frame the debate on the budget as a popular referendum on what he calls his “honest” fiscal strategy.
“From the time I first proposed what I believe to be a balanced approach to our budget deficit — both cuts and a temporary extension of current taxes —
dozens of groups affected by one or another of the proposed cuts have said we should cut somewhere else instead,” he said. “Still others say we should not extend the current taxes but let them go away. So far, however, these same people have failed to offer even one alternative solution.”
By far the toughest part of the political calculus for Brown is breaking the Republican blockade of his push for a tax vote. Although there are tricky parliamentary maneuvers he could use to put his measure on the ballot with only Democratic votes, such a move would give a strong partisan taint to the effort, making it more suspect in the eyes of voters.
GOP legislators say they won’t support the ballot push, because it is important for them to stand on principle against taxes, but so far they have refused to identify where in the budget they would make additional cuts, which Democrats say would eviscerate K-12 education and the UC, CSU, and community college systems, among other programs.
A new Public Policy Institute of California poll released last week showed a majority of voters support the thrust of Brown’s complex financial recovery plan and strongly oppose further cuts in almost every program except prisons, despite expressing mixed views on taxes. A strong majority also said they wanted the chance to vote on the program.
“Under our form of government,” said Brown, mindful of public opinion on the issue, “it would be unconscionable to tell the electors of this state that they have no right to decide whether it is better to extend current tax statutes another five years or chop another $12 billion out of schools, public safety, our universities, and our system of caring for the poor and elderly.”
The special-election issue is both urgent and crucial, both because lawmakers face a deadline in March to qualify a ballot initiative for June and because Brown’s budget counts on the $12 billion in extra tax revenue to balance the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. His challenge now is to identify a handful of GOP members with districts where a substantial slice of voters might favor his vote proposal, and to make them feel the heat.
“The speech is the easy part,” he told reporters after his address. “The hard part is the plan.”