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Following the Polls Is the Path to Oblivion

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Following the Polls Is the Path to Oblivion

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California Gov. Jerry Brown announces his proposed budget at the California State Capitol on Jan. 10, 2011, in Sacramento.

Reading George Skelton's column Monday was enough to make you want to beat your head against the wall. Skelton suggests Gov. Brown can achieve success by following the polling. "Brown's road map to success can be gleaned from a voter survey conducted by veteran Democratic pollster Jim Moore. So far, Brown is following the arduous path laid out by the polling."

If the past 30 years of California fiscal history is any guide, adopting policy to match polling is not a "road map to success", it's a recipe for disaster.

Many of the constitutional constraints and spending mandates that have left the budget structurally out of balance were the product of ballot measures -- all of them poll-tested and adopted by voters. And the public's demand for "Something for nothing" -- high levels of government services without the commensurate level of taxation to pay for them -- is the core of the problem.

And while the specific path that Moore's polling outlines may lead to the triumph of ballot measures in a spring special election, this same path -- as reported by Skelton -- would clearly not achieve any kind of budget success.

Consider the four things voters could be convinced of, according to the polls and to Skelton.

1. That balancing the budget through spending cuts and tax increases will rebuild the California economy.

Problem: spending cuts and tax increases won't fix the state's structural deficit, unless they are tied to full-scale reform. Why? Because the underlying fiscal system keeps making things worse. And unless the laws of economics have been turned on their head, raising taxes and cutting spending at a time of economic weakness should hurt the economy, not help it.

2. Convince people that raising taxes will protect education.

Actually, these tax increases will effectively cut education, according to Brown's budget. Which is to say: when you keep education spending constant after a series of cuts (and in a state with a growing population), you are cutting education. So what Brown's taxes will do is simply slow the pace of education cuts. Of course, the state's fiscal system -- a ratchet that actively makes things worse -- is likely to deepen those education cuts even more. Systemic reform is needed to fix that--and systemic reform is precisely what Brown doesn't offer in his budget.

3.  Show the electorate that the tax revenue won't be wasted, especially on state workers' pay and pensions.

Brown's budget proposes to cut workers' salaries. But it doesn't include pension reform.

4. Offer Republicans a juicy bone, such as a tight cap on spending that would last as long as the taxes existed.

A spending cap doesn't work, either as a matter of policy or politically. Politically, Republicans are going to oppose tax increases. And as a policy matter, this state already has all kinds of spending caps and limits. None of them work. California has so many mandates and other budgetary whips and chains that the last thing it needs is another one.

Younger Californians also might argue that after years of budget cuts, the state needs to find ways to spend more money on education and services that build a better future -- unless the goal of older Californians is a diminished future for its young people.

In each of these four cases, the polls argue that Brown can win by convincing voters of things that aren't really true.

Perhaps the polls are right and there's a chance for a political victory for Brown following this path. But following the polls is clearly a long-term loser for California.

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