Is Brown's Ballot Initiative for Real?

Word began to spread Tuesday that Gov. Jerry Brown has a possible Plan B if Republicans refuse to agree to add his temporary tax extensions to the ballot: using the initiative process to extend the taxes directly.

To be clear, that means the governor -- or more likely his labor allies -- would act without the legislature and gather signatures on one or more ballot initiatives to raise the revenues he wants for his budget plan. Brown, according to reports, is more likely to pursue an initiative than he is to have the legislature add a measure altering a previous initiative to the ballot by majority vote, because of possible legal challenges to such a manuever.

It's far from clear such a plan is real. It's quite possible that Brown's allies are floating it as a way of encouraging Republicans to make a deal to put the measure on directly. GOP legislators won't be able to extract any concessions from Brown if the governor ends negotiations with them and acts unilaterally with an initiative. He won't need them on the initiative front.

You'll hear much about the political and fiscal drawbacks of an initiative strategy. On the political side, Brown and the Democrats would not be able to point to Republican support for an initiative (as they would have for a ballot measure placed on the ballot with GOP votes). In addition, an initiative would need months to qualify for the ballot, which means a special election to approve it would be called for November, instead of June (as Brown had wanted for the temporary tax extensions). Brown is popular with the public now, but he may be far less popular by the fall. And since the current temporary taxes expire with the end of the current fiscal year in June, Brown will have trouble arguing that what he is proposing are merely extensions of existing taxes originally approved in 2009. Opponents will label them new tax increases--a designation that voters don't seem to like in polls.

The timing of the initiative also creates fiscal troubles. Brown's plan depends on having the tax revenues for income, sales and vehicles beginning July 1. Instead he'll lose that revenue for at least a few months, even if an initiative succeeds.

On the other hand, an initiative would give Brown the vote he can't get Republicans to give him. And he could make a very credible case that he tried to work with Republicans on a compromise, and they wouldn't go along. The initiative also would show Brown's union backers that he's doing everything he can to get them what they want -- an up-or-down vote on taxes without any Republican "reforms" (Like pensions) that labor doesn't like. I described the political advantages to Brown of giving labor what it wants in a recent piece in the Daily Beast.

Contact Us