How to Solve Skelton’s Riddle

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)

In a recent column, George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times takes a sideways shot at Gov. Jerry Brown.

The columnist’s charge? That the governor, by campaigning for two ballot measures (the Prop 1 water bond and the constitutional budget-and-debt formula known as Prop 2), was distracting people from the fact that he hasn’t come up with any second-term agenda to speak with.

“About the only thing Propositions 1 and 2 have in common is they’re being used as props of a different kind by Gov. Jerry Brown. They’re handy stage props for the governor’s reelection campaign.” Then Skelton adds: “But promoting them doesn’t give Brown a valid excuse for not telling voters what they can expect from a fourth term.”

It’s a good column – Skelton takes apart the insipid messaging linking Props 1 and 2 and gives the fullest account of the case against 2 to date (before lamely saying they deserve passage for reasons he doesn’t explain). But on this last point – that Props 1 and 2 don’t give Brown an excuse for his lack of agenda – Skelton is wrong.

Prop 2 all by itself provides all the excuse Brown needs not to offer a fourth-term agenda.

The governor has been clear about his love for not doing too much, for not tackling big new projects, for not investing significant new money in children and schools after decades of under-investment. Prop 2, by laying a new formula on the budget and prioritizing debt repayments, is likely to make sure that the governor doesn’t have to do any of these things in his second term.

Prop 2 ‘s provisions build a new budget formula on today’s low levels of spending through 2030—thus embedding the low-spending, low-growth Brown approach for more than a decade after he leaves office. Recently on Twitter, supporters of Prop 2 – which is the entire media and political establishment of the state – criticized me, saying that debt repayments would create more cash for investments.

They’re almost certain to be wrong. But even if they’re right, they won’t be right for a long time. The California Budget Project — which both the legions of Prop 2 supporters and yours truly, perhaps the only person in the state willing to condemn this monstrously ill-conceived measure, are citing – indicates that the locked-in debt repayment of Prop 2 will have short-term costs.

One clear reason for the governor’s support — and the unanimous legislative support – of Prop 2 is that it gives them an easy excuse to resist any broad spending in the next few years. We’d love to, but those voters approved the rainy day fund. On Twitter, Prop 2 supporters cited Brown’s straw man argument for the measure’s formula that since the legislature isn’t made up of angels, we need these new Prop 2 restraints (on top of old restraints, it should be noted). Question: Was Prop 2 written by angels? And if so, who are these angels? It looks to me like its authors include the same devils in the legislature and the interest group world who write budgets.

The bottom line: The governor is fashioning the handcuffs on himself. So why should Skelton or anyone else expect a second-term agenda?

There isn’t a real campaign against Prop 2, but it’s still not too late for voters to wake up to this attack on democratic discretion. Here’s a simple message: we’ve already waited too long to reinvest in the state. The future is now.

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