Advancing a Free Society

California’s Brown Box

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Back in the heady days of his recall campaign, Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to “blow up the boxes” in Sacramento, if elected governor of California. That was Governator-speak for slimming down a bloated state bureaucracy.

Schwarzenegger has left the stage, of course, taking with him the macho bravado and movie one-liners. But looking at the early fortunes of his successor, it’s clear that Jerry Brown has a “box” problem of his own – namely, that the Democratic governor finds himself surrounded by limitations, some he inherited and some of his own making.

That would include:

  1. A box he inherited: the law requiring a 2/3 vote of the Legislature to raise taxes (meaning, for Brown, he needs two Republican votes in each chamber). Without that provision, Brown’s plan to cut spending and extend higher taxes would have sailed through both legislative chambers, long ago, on a party-line vote. Instead, the governor’s plan is dead in the water until he can find way to get at least four Republicans to budge.
  2. A box he created: Brown’s campaign pledge not to raise taxes without voter approval. It sounded good as a candidate; it hamstrings his options as governor. Now, he’s considering putting the cart before the horse – proposing a budget that assumes higher taxes before voters approve them. My thinking: if the 73-year-old doesn’t plan on seeking re-election in 2014, why not the break the pledge now, before his entire first year is wasted.
  3. Another he inherited: the mess that is California’s budget. For all the talk of tough love and harsh spending cuts, California is bleeding red ink for the foreseeable future: $10 billion annual budget deficits through the 2014-15 fiscal cycle. That means Sacramento’s debate over revenue and spending – a discussion certain to play out in the form of budget, laws ad ballot initiatives – won’t be going away any time soon.
  4. Another he enhanced: Brown, like his two predecessors, overuses the word “crisis” in describing California’s budgetary woes. The problem is: that word implies a sense of urgency when, in fact, governors and legislators have kicked the can down the road for years via fiscal gimmickry and structural deficits. A “crisis” is a house on fire; California’s budgetary mess is more akin to dry rot. Brown should tone down the rhetoric and find a different way to galvanize grassroots support.

The “May Revise” of the California state budget is the second-biggest political story in the Golden State this week, topped only by the Schwarzenegger-Shriver split. It showed revenues on the rise – thus making it tougher for Jerry Brown to sell GOP lawmakers on higher taxes.

Yet, for all the talk of an unsolvable impasse in Sacramento between the Democratic governor and those assorted senators and assemblymen, the solution is simple.

Theoretically, at least.

Republicans want some semblance of pension reform, regulatory reform and a stringent cap on new spending. If Brown can sell that to the left – especially the budget cap, which would limit new spending when California’s bust inevitably turns to boom – then he might have a deal.

Until then, while other states forge ahead with necessary fiscal reform, California and Jerry Brown remain stuck in a corner – literally, boxed in.