I'm personally agnostic on whether temporary tax extensions should be adopted as part of a budget plan. My view is that the budget system itself is so badly broken that the current argument over the mix of spending cuts and tax increases is pointless. California is condemned to endless cycles of cuts and tax hikes until it adopts a more rational budget system.
With that perspective in mind, however, here's some free advice to Gov. Jerry Brown and Democrats. Now that Republican legislators have broken off talks about putting the tax extensions on the ballot, stop bothering with the GOP -- and put the temporary tax extensions on the ballot yourself.
This is doable. While the constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature to put most measures on the ballot (which is why Brown has been pursuing Republican votes), a measure that modifies a previous ballot initiative may be placed on the ballot via majority vote. Democrats, including the governor, should seize on that loophole and frame their tax extensions as modifications of previous ballot initiatives (anything on taxes should do).
Why should they do this? Conventional wisdom is that a tax increase measure seen as partisan -- and put on the ballot using a rarely used method, like altering previous initiative -- has little chance of winning. That's true, but Democrats should press on for a couple of reasons.
First: in for a dime, in for a dollar.
Democrats can now pass a budget by majority vote. So the only alternative is to make big budget cuts -- cuts that Republicans, despite their anti-spending rhetoric, won't support. Since Democrats will have to take the political pain of cuts by themselves, they might as well seek the extra tax dollars any way they can.
Second, lance the union boil.
The public employee unions and progressive interests that support Democrats will never shut up if the Democrats surrender now. The Brown strategy is largely a labor strategy; labor wants a ballot that offers tax increases and little else -- a so-called "clean" ballot so people can vote on taxes. Brown and the Democrats should give them that. If the tax measures somehow pass, Brown and the Democrats have more money with which to avoid some cuts. But if the tax measures lose, Brown and the Democrats will be able to push the unions to make more concessions on the budget. They could argue: we tried it your way, and the voters said no.
If Brown and the Democrats quit now without putting tax measures on the ballot, some unions will call that a surrender and may fight the governor when he makes more cuts.
Third, the political costs aren't that high.
There's been much hype about the threat of the upcoming redistricting to remake California politics. Don't bet on it. Democrats are locked into majorities in both houses of the legislature, because of demographic and geographic factors -- and because of a broken elections system. Redistricting won't change that. The bottom line is: there is no way Democrats are going to lose significant seats in the legislature by giving people the right to vote on taxes. Particularly when most Californians want to vote.
Finally, the likely failure of such a measure would push the state closer to a reckoning and real reform.
It may be that before Californians embrace the systemic and constitutional reform the state needs, they'll have to try all other options first. So trying to raise taxes in this way -- and watching either the increases fail at the ballot, or the increases pass and fail to produce a balanced budget -- eliminates another option that won't work.
Which takes us one step closer to the comprehensive constitutional rewrite that can get us out of this endless downward spiral.