Budget Apocalypse Now!

Marlon Brando 307879

What sort of apocalypse will ensue if the legislature or voters reject Gov. Brown's plans to extend temporary tax increases on income, sales and cars for five years?

Brown isn't saying. But a growing chorus of people, among them Treasurer Bill Lockyer, say Brown should detail the horrors that await. Lockyer suggested last week that one consequence would be a school year that is six weeks shorter.

The argument of this "Apocalypse Now!" crowd amounts to this: voters hate taxes and are unlikely to embrace them unless confronted with a scarier alternative. In this case, that alternative would be big cuts in schools and other programs they value. In this view, the choice should be made explicit.

Brown's side counters that making the additional cuts explicit might boomerang and feel like threatening voters; some also suggest that voters might not see the threatened cuts as credible anyway. There's also a practical objection to "Apocalypse Now!". It's going to be hard enough to get a budget agreement to put the tax measures on the ballot -- without having to also get an agreement on a back-up plan of cuts.

Recent history, however, suggests that the Brown approach won't work. In a 2009 special election, Gov. Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders sought voter approval of these very same temporary tax increases -- but never specified exactly what would be cut. The tax increases were rejected by voters. It's not clear if spelling out what armageddon might look like will produce a different result. But it may well be worth a try.

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