Why was Gov. Jerry Brown’s state of the state speech so
short? I don’t know. Perhaps he didn’t feel California deserved anything more.
The address felt like a slap in the face. Republicans got the open hand for refusing
to consider tax increases (or even give the public a chance to vote on tax
increases). Democrats and interest
groups got hit for refusing to identify alternatives to cuts they oppose.
Those shots were plenty fair.
Brown’s targets are guilty as charged. But Brown might consider finding a lower
horse to ride, for he is not without sin in this budget business himself.
budget is more honest than recent documents, but it’s not a panacea. Its tax
increases are temporary, not permanent. There’s plenty of one-time money and
even a few gimmicks. And with California’s dysfunctional system constantly
working to reduce revenues and add new spending mandates, Brown’s plan
certainly won’t fix the budget problem once and for all. It kicks the can down the
road, albeit further down the road than recent budgets.
In his speech, Brown went overboard
big time, suggesting he’s the only one making serious budget proposals. He
elevated his demand for a public vote on his plan – specifically its extension
of temporary tax increases – into some kind of test of California’s commitment
So let’s be clear: The vote Brown
is proposing isn’t some glorious act of democracy. It’s a plebiscite. The
state’s leader is demanding a certain vote at a certain time on a narrow
question of his choosing. And he is not really asking a question. He is telling
voters: Either embrace the particular tax increases I want or I will cut the
things you care about. What are those things? Well, I can’t tell you right now.
They’re too scary.
that make you feel empowered?
Brown is out on a limb here. He won
the election, yes, but with vague promises to use his experience to bring
people together – and with no real mandate for broad reform or specific cuts.
Brown seems to be making choices based on what he might be able to sell (i.e.
political pragmatism). That’s fine. But those choices don’t seem to be the
product of any authentic popular or democratic process that involved real civic
whatever he said last night, there are plenty of alternatives out there. Brown
could be calling for real tax increases, over and above the temporary
extensions, in order to protect programs and fill more of the budget hole. He
could be calling for a top-to-bottom tax reform that broadens the base and
produces more revenues more rationally. He could be demanding higher sin taxes
or oil severance taxes that might forestall big cuts he’s proposing to the
university systems. He could be offering an all-cuts budget, with deep slashes in
education and prisons. He could be pursuing deeper realignment of tax and
spending power that goes beyond the best part of his budget proposal, which is
the controversial elimination of redevelopment agencies. But he’s not doing
Of course, Brown and his team
believe that in making the choices they’ve made, they’re pursuing the course
with the best chance of success, given the political realities. Maybe.
By my lights, he’s ignoring the
best approach, the one method that gives California a chance of escaping this
endless cycle of bad budgets. That would be a thorough redesign of the state’s
governing and budget systems via constitutional revision. As my California
Crackup co-author Mark Paul and I argued in the LA Times a month ago, Brown and the legislature could
punt the budget questions to the public, offering voters a choice of various
different proposals (perhaps one from Republicans, another from Democratic
legislators, another his own). That would still be a plebiscite, albeit one
with more choices.
Then the legislature and the
governor could begin the hard, long work of constitutional reform so we can get
ourselves out of the endless budget hell in which we’re stuck.
That’s the best alternative.