Governor Jerry Brown, the Zelig of American politics, was midway through a news conference, rolling out his latest state financing proposal last Monday, when he suddenly switched personas.
Asked by a reporter to describe what happens if his new budget plan is not approved, Brown stopped talking like the veteran pol he is, and reverted to the Jesuit scholar he once was.
“It’ll be a ‘war of all against all,’” the governor said, “or in the Latin: bellum omnium contra omnes.”
As every schoolchild doubtless knows, Brown’s reference was to “Leviathan,” the canonical treatise published in 1651 by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who famously forecast that society’s failure to address its inherent economic, political, and social conflicts would lead to a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
And while California may be the only state in the union blessed with a chief executive who quotes the classics in the original, unfortunately, it also is alone in being cursed with a tangle of fiscal problems so intractable as to draw comparison to one of the gloomier assessments of humankind in history.
In performing the annual springtime ritual of updating the tax-and-spending plan he introduced in January — known in Capitol-speak as the governor’s “May Revise” — Brown once again set forth a compromise proposal with something for everyone to hate. And he warned that failure to reach a bipartisan deal by the June 15 constitutional deadline would trigger “all against all” political carnage, as advocates for business, labor, low taxes, schools, and social welfare programs unleash barrages of competing ballot initiatives to work their wills on Sacramento.
“If this thing falls apart,” the governor said, “there will be all manner of untoward outcomes and animosities and division. I think it will be very divisive for California. I think we will flounder.”
The biggest change in Brown’s revised fiscal blueprint: His economists now predict state government will capture an additional $6.6 billion in additional taxes during the next 13 months, through the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2012.
In the total budget of about $85 billion — around $2,300 for each man, woman, and child in the state — by law public schools receive by far the biggest chunk of money; Brown therefore proposes that K-12 education get a boost of about $3 billion above earlier projections for the next year, enough to head off the kind of worst-case scenarios educators had foreseen before the new budget numbers were released.
Brown hastened to add, however, that big problems remain.
While the additional revenue will help in the short term, the state’s long-running “structural deficit” still requires a host of temporary higher tax rates for California to put its finances in order, he said. The state now faces a $35-billion “wall of debt,” most of it from borrowing or seizing funds earmarked for schools and local governments during the serial budget crises of recent years, that will quickly put California back into deficit if lawmakers and voters do not pass his plan for temporary higher taxes, the governor insisted.
His controversial proposal calls for five years of higher sales and vehicle levies, along with a 0.25-percent surcharge on personal income taxes for four years. The tax measure remains by far the biggest roadblock to any budget deal; in the wake of the higher revenue forecasts, legislative Republicans, who have refused flatly to give Brown the few votes he needs to put his plan before voters, stepped up their antitax rhetoric.
“We don’t need, and it’s ridiculous to ask voters for, five years of new taxes,” said State Senate GOP leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga. “We call upon the governor to stop trying to raise people’s taxes and start working across party lines on a no-tax-increase budget compromise,” chimed in Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Visalia.
Despite such sentiments, Brown said he remains confident of finding the necessary Republican votes, two in the Assembly and two in the Senate. One potential breakthrough issue: The Democratic governor for the first time said he will support a tough, constitutional cap on state expenditures, a key reform sought by Republicans that is aimed at preventing free-spending lawmakers from increasing the size of government in years when the state is flush with cash.
“Hey, I’m giving you the blueprint,” he told reporters with a smile. “Now the other architects will start to screw it up.”
You can find the governor’s revised budget plan at ebudget.ca.gov. An analysis by the California Budget Project is at cbp.org.