California Gov. Jerry Brown delivers a keynote address during the 2011 Pacific Coast Builders Conference.
It's become conventional wisdom among pundits: Gov. Jerry Brown's legacy depends on whether his temporary tax initiative, Proposition 30, wins in November. The argument goes that a Prop 30 victory would show that Brown had tamed the budget monster -- and a defeat would be devastating.
These pundits are wrong.
The trouble with the argument is less with Brown, and more with Prop 30. Put simply, it's not consequential enough to determine anyone's legacy.
Or to put it another way, whether Prop 30 wins or loses, the outcome is essentially the same. The state budget will still be broken. And California schools and other public services won't have a reliable source of funding to make necessary long-term improvements.
So: Why the confusion? Pundits are swallowing the rhetoric about Prop 30 being a big thing. It isn't.
Its tax increases are temporary and not particularly large; the sales tax piece is just a quarter-cent. The state's tax system is left in place; the measure doesn't change anything, except perhaps make a volatile tax system that much more volatile.
And the money generated by the measure isn't all that much: less than 10 percent of the budget by most estimates. That doesn't make up for a generation of under-investment in infrastructure and other public services. Indeed, much of the money goes to patch existing holes. There's no new money for schools in the measure -- the money instead makes up for money the schools were already owed.
So what's Brown's legacy? It's hard to care, given the size of the state's problems and the small nature of the governor's attempts to address it. Prop 30's existence -- and the emphasis Brown has put on it politically -- suggests that Brown's legacy will be meager, whether the measure wins or loses.
Indeed, if Brown is to have a legacy in this term, it's more likely to come from his push for high-speed rail and a water conveyance system. But only if those big things get built. And it's far from clear that either will make it.