Time to Talk Straight to Voters, Governor

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

When you send the family pooch out on the political hustings, it’s a pretty good sign that things are either going really well or really poorly with the campaign.

So when Sutter Brown, California’s first dog, was “unleashed” on the Prop. 30 initiative effort this week amid a blizzard of publicity, it left two choices about how Gov. Jerry Brown’s effort to close the state’s budget gap with $6 billion a year in temporary taxes is faring.

Here’s a hint: Don’t pick “really well.”

A couple of new polls out this week confirmed what’s been pretty evident for the past few weeks. While Prop. 30 may still have a lead among California voters, the numbers are speeding in the wrong direction.

Both the USC/Los Angeles Times Poll and the Public Policy Institute of California surveys showed Prop. 30 sinking below the magic 50 percent number needed for approval. In the past month, support dropped from 55 percent to 46 percent in the Times poll and from 52 percent to 48 percent in the PPIC sample.

The numbers are bad, but the direction is worse. While there are enough undecided voters out there to boost the tax measure to victory on Nov. 6, Brown and his allies not only haven’t closed the deal, but also haven’t managed to answer the single most important question for voters: Why should I vote to raise my taxes?

The No on Prop. 30 folks are putting out their answer to the question. A new radio ad by the opposition features a woman talking about how tough times are for her family and worried that the sales tax hike “will make everything we buy cost more.”

Of course that message is undercut when Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association comes on at the end of the spot to trumpet the “Taxes bad, government evil” mantra of the anti-tax brigades, but the concerns are real and Brown has to address them.

So far the governor’s been content to run feel-good ads talking about how wonderful it will be to put new money into the schools and won’t things be great for all the cute kids appearing in the TV spots.

And oh, by the way, this money will also be used to put more cops on the street and everyone likes that, right?

Well, despite what the focus groups may have told the governor, that happy-talk, no-rough-edges campaign model isn’t working. Political consultants may think differently, but voters are adults who want to make decisions based on reality, not on the pastel-colored soap bubbles that make up most positive political advertising.

Ironically enough, Brown’s answer for the final run to the election is in the fact sheet on his campaign’s website.

Sure, it starts out with the same old stuff about providing billions for the schools and tougher law enforcement, but then it moves to other, more honest, arguments.

Prop. 30 “balances our budget and helps us pay down California’s debt – built up by years of gimmicks, borrowing and phony solutions,” the plan reads, adding that the measure “is the next crucial step to addressing the state’s chronic budget mess.”

The fact sheet also mentions the word that dares not be spoken by admitting that yes, Prop. 30 does raise taxes, but reminding voters that only couples making more than $500,000 will pay more income tax and that the new sales tax rate will still be lower than it was last year.

A reminder of the billions in automatic cuts to schools, colleges and universities and other state programs that will be triggered if Prop. 30 doesn’t pass also would help force the undecided voters to, well, decide.

Coupal, in an op-ed piece that ran in some California papers this week, already is complaining that when Brown and his allies talk about the trigger cuts and the damage they would do to the state, they’re “taking the gangster approach of intimidation and coercion to get the money they want from taxpayers.”

Yet opponents of Brown’s initiative have no problems with forecasting the end of the state as we know it to scare voters into voting against Prop. 30.

Politics is always easier when you only have to see one side.

For the anti-tax types, the answer to any question is always “cut taxes,” regardless of what it may do to life in California. And it’s way easier to talk about the need to dump programs, slash the public workforce and end social programs when you’re not the one who will have to make the hard – and sometimes impossible — choices required to keep the wheels of government running

So take a chance, governor. Send Sutter back to the fireside and spend the final few days before the election having a conversation with voters. Level with them on both the costs and benefits of Prop. 30 and tell them straight up why you believe it’s in California’s long-term interest.

Remind Californians that Nov. 6 is their chance to say what type of state they want for themselves and their children.

And then step back. In the end, you see, it’s their decision. And they may surprise you.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

 

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