5 Reasons The Governor Shouldn’t Blame Others for Crowded Ballot

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

It’s just terrible that Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiative to raise taxes temporarily can’t be considered by voters all by itself. Instead, it has to go on a big crowded ballot along with a host of other measures, including competing tax-hiking initiatives.

I, for one, sure hope Gov. Brown tracks down whoever is responsible for forcing all those initiatives onto the November general election ballot — and gives that person a piece of his mind.

(Excuse me, one second, someone is whispering in my ear…) Really?

Never mind about that suggestion.

Yes, even as Brown and his allies try to pressure competing measures off the ballot, it’s worth remembering that the governor is in a fix that is profoundly of his own making. Here are five reasons why.

1. The governor failed to get a real mandate from voters.

Do you remember the 2010 gubernatorial campaign well? Me neither. But looking back at accounts of the campaign, one thing sticks out: Brown never sought much of a mandate from voters. He spent much of the campaign saying very little, and helping Whitman self-destruct. The closest he came to a mandate was to promise voters that he wouldn’t raise taxes – unless they approved first.

Brown didn’t need to make that promise to win in a big Democratic year, but he didn’t know that at the time. But it put him in the box—and virtually guaranteed he would have to go to voters to get revenues.

2. The governor failed to move quickly on a ballot initiative in the transition.

Since Brown had telegraphed to voters that he’d ask them for revenues, it would have made sense for him to draft and file an initiative even before he was sworn in as governor. The progress of that measures might have given him some leverage with Republicans in negotiations over the budget and revenues. And if those negotiations had still failed (as they did without the initiative), he could have gone quickly to the ballot in 2011, when he was still in his honeymoon.

He didn’t do that. He didn’t even raise the money necessary to feint in that direction. And he didn’t authorize his labor allies to do it for him. This was a huge missed opportunity.

3. He had the power of a special election and failed to use it.

Governors, of all people, have no right to complain about crowded ballots – because they can call special elections. Brown didn’t use that power. And he should have – if keeping competing measures away from his tax plan was such a priority. Brown could have prepared his own initiative earlier and called a special election at any point during 2011 or early in 2012. But he didn’t.

And there were moments that would have made sense. He could have – and should have – launched a tax initiative after the failure of the first big round of budget talks in March 2011. And he could have – and should have – launched a tax initiative right after the budget passed in June without new revenues. Instead, he tried to sell the budget as honest and balanced.

4. He signed the bill to limit initiatives to November general elections.

That legislation was terrible policy – it made California’s too-long ballots even longer. (Real reform would take us the opposite direction, by creating a separate election calendar for ballot measures so each can get proper consideration and deliberation).

But the move seemed like good politics, since labor and Democrats thought a general election vote on “paycheck protection”/union dues would be harder for conservatives to win. But it wasn’t good politics for Brown. It guaranteed that the 2012 general election ballot would be crammed with measures — since they would have to wait a full two years, until November 2014 for another chance. Now, Brown’s political boat may be sunk by a torpedo he himself fired. Oh, bitter irony.

5. He does e didn’t convince others to stay off the ballot.

One of the most amazing pieces of news to emerge in recent days came via sponsors of the competing tax measures. The California Federation of Teachers and the Courage Campaign, who are behind the millionaire’s tax, said Brown met with them but never asked them to stand down. And Molly Munger, sponsor of the income tax increase to fund schools, told reporters that the governor hadn’t talked to her about taking her measure off the ballot.

That’s way too Zen.

And it fits too well with Brown’s long pattern – a pattern that goes back to his first governorship – of delaying action until it’s too late. When you consider Brown’s frequent delays, and his inability to take advantage of the political calendar, the decisions by CFT/Courage and Munger to go forward make perfect sense.

Just how long, after all, do you have to wait for Jerry Brown?

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