GOP Hoists Brown on His Own Petard

It appears that Jerry Brown may have made his predicament worse with his State of the State speech.

Brown used the address to try to corner Republicans. The governor's plan calls for a special election to ask the public whether to extend temporary tax increases. Republicans have balked because of their unrelenting opposition to taxes. So Brown tried to paint them as opponents of the people, calling it "unconscionable" that they would not let the voters make decisions for themselves. Brown depicted himself as a champion of voter decisionmaking and choice.

In so doing, he may have gotten himself more than he bargained for. California Republicans are responding by saying, in effect: OK, let's give the voters a choice. We'll let you put your tax increase measure on the ballot -- if you let us put another measure on the ballot asking voters if they'd like to cut the same taxes.

That's not check mate for the GOP, but it's a strong position, at least politically. (As a matter of policy, tax cuts will exacerbate the deficit.). Brown will find this hard to counter. A choice between tax increases and tax cuts is almost certain to be won by the tax cutters. California voters, after all, don't understand the budget and love the idea of getting something-for-nothing.

The governor can still come back by offering to do what he originally should have done -- put his entire budget proposal on the ballot, along with competing proposals from Republicans and Democrats. These can't simply be tax proposals -- they must include cuts as well. As a legal matter, such votes would technically be advisory, but both parties and Brown would have to agree to accept the results. (Brown also should stop being coy and get specific about the cuts that will ensue if his tax extensions -- or the GOP tax cuts -- were to pass).

The other advantage of this approach -- besides getting Brown out of the little political hole he's dug himself -- is that, while voters decide on the budget, the governor and lawmakers would be free to focus on constitutional reform to fix the system, so the state isn't stuck in this perpetual budget hell.

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