Prop Zero
The Starting Point for Commentary and Coverage of California Politics

The Three Missed Budget Opportunities for Brown, Democrats

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Brown's Three Strikes

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SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 24: California Gov. Jerry Brown stands next to a chart that shows dollar amounts in the millions that were cut from the State's budget following a bill signing on March 24, 2011 in Sacramento, California. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed 13 bills into law that will cut $11.2 billion from California's budget deficit. $12.6 billion still needs to be cut to balance the budget. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Gov. Brown is stuck.

Republicans still haven't given him a deal, because it includes temporary tax extensions that would be subject to voter approval, and the Republicans hate taxes. 

And Democrats and key Democratic interest groups don't like the proposed budget deal because the tax extensions would likely be turned down by voters, and because the deal is likely to include a spending limit and other policy changes they aren't crazy about it.

Did it have to turn out this way?

Monday morning quarterbacking is an unfair game to play. But no one said we at Prop Zero had to be fair. And a look back at the five-month-long budget saga does suggest that Brown, and his party, missed three significant opportunities to get an outcome better than anything that is possible now.

1. The failure to qualify a ballot initiative.

Brown didn't have to do a deal with Republicans. He could have sought the temporary tax extensions all by himself -- by gathering signatures on a ballot initiative.

He would have had to start early though -- back in January in his first few days in office, or even earlier, during his transition into office.

This way, he could have pursued the taxes wthout having to agree to spending limits that alienate his own party. And if Brown still had wanted to negotiate, the ballot initiative would have given him, at the very least, a stronger hand in those talks.

If Republicans had made the same unreasonable demands that they have (at one point in talks they released a list of more than 50 demands), he could have said, No, I'll just do the initiative.

Why didn't he do the initiative? 

Brown had talked up his own ability to overcome the state's structural governance problem and the reluctance of Republicans to support taxes. in retrospect, he overestimated his personal powers of persuasion.

2. Looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Some Republicans responded to Brown's demand that they agree to a public vote on his tax extensions by saying they would agree only if the public was also asked if it wanted to cut taxes by an amount equal to that of the tax extensions.

In retrospect, Brown and the Democrats should have taken the Republicans up on this offer.

Yes, there would have been some risk that the tax cuts might have passed, but that risk was minimal, as the former Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. president Joel Fox argued here. And it may be that Republicans would have found a way to retract their offer.

But this would have been a path to a relatively clean vote on tax extensions -- without the spending limit and other Republican demands that have turned off Democrats.

3. The Assembly Republican budget.

Assembly Republicans put out their own budget several weeks ago. It was an dishonest piece work, full of gimmicks and borrowing.

But it gave more to education than the all-cuts budget that Brown could end up with. In other words, it's dishonest--but better for the state and Democratic interests than an all-cuts budget.

Brown and the Democrats might have been wise to pass that budget -- or at least use it as a backstop in a deal.

The governor and his party could have said to Republicans; we'll adopt your budget, if you give us the vote on temporary tax extensions. The tax extensions, if approved by voters, would replace certain cuts and borrowing in the budget.

Again, this would have been an imperfect solution. But the outcome would be better. Either voters would have approved temporary tax extensions (as part of a clean vote that didn't include a bunch of additional measures on policy changes, which are the price of a deal now) or a dishonest budget that does less damage than an honest, all-cuts budget.

Of course, there's a much bigger opportunity Brown missed: to define his governorship--and last year's campaign for governor -- as an effort to rewrite the state's budget and governance system.

He could have leveled with voters and explained that the budget can't truly be balanced -- and the state's serious problems addressed -- under the current system.

But he didn't.

So he's left himself with few good options -- and wide open to second guessers.

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