SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 10: California Governor Jerry Brown speaks to reporters as he announces his proposed budget at the California State Capitol on January 10, 2011 in Sacramento, California. Governor Brown announced a balanced state budget that cuts spending by $12.5 billion and includes an eight to ten percent cut in take home pay for state employees and proposes a "vast and historic" restructuring of government operations. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Gov. Jerry Brown's plan for five-year tax extensions is stalled, but he's not giving up. He released the above Youtube video today making the case for his original plan.
But in Sacramento, the main parlor game is now: what should Brown's Plan B be, given that Republicans seem unlikely to put his tax extension on the ballot.
The thinking in this area is not particularly strong. LA Times columnist George Skelton this morning offers his three options -- none of which is a realistic option. Let's look at each of the three and the problems with each:
1. "Offer the GOP a better deal and try to convince unions it's the best bargain they're going to get."
PROBLEM: The unions won last November's elections so they are in no mood to surrender to Republicans who just got beat. In general, a plan that requires surrender by one side in a dispute is not politically viable.
2. "If the GOP Five still won't budge, employ a traditional "pick off" strategy in the Legislature. Bargain with Republicans individually. If they won't buy into the policy, dangle pork and perks."
PROBLEM: This is the closest to a real strategy. The problem is: it's the same old strategy, and Brown has insisted he's not the same-old, same-old. If you buy Republicans, that costs money, money the state doesn't have. One reason California budgets are so full of gimmicks and produce large deficits is all the extra purchases of votes needed to get 2/3 of the legislature to agree.
3. "And if all else fails, Brown should break a foolish campaign promise he made in winning election last year."
PROBLEM: The promise Skelton is referring to is Brown's promise not to raise taxes without voter approval. Skelton wants the governor to just raise taxes without the public vote. The problem is that it still takes 2/3 of the legislature -- and thus the votes of at least 4 Republicans -- to raise taxes (the same barrier for putting a new measure on the ballot asking voters to raise taxes. And it's likely to be more difficult to get Republicans to vote for a straight tax increase than it is to get them to give voters the choice of tax extensions. In short, Skelton's suggestion makes no sense.
The fact that someone as smart and experienced as Skelton can't come up with a viable option for Brown shows just how stuck the governor -- and the California system of government -- is. Brown's only real options in this circumstance amount to these:
1. Take the Republicans up on their offer to vote to put his tax extensions on the ballot -- if he will agree to put their own tax cuts on the ballot. Yes, the spending cuts would be even more disastrous if the GOP tax cuts were to win. But if Brown wants his plan, it's a risk he may have to take.
2. Use an aggressive legal manuever to put the tax extensions on the ballot via a majority vote. (This could be done by altering a previously approved voter initiative--a tactic that would almost certainly be challenged in court).
Neither of these are good options. But they would give him a chance of getting his tax extensions on the ballot. In the end, however, the only way out of this budget fix is to redesign the state's fiscal and governing systems themselves. That requires constitutional revision. And so far, no one, least of all Brown, is willing to go there.