Here’s a quiz for California voters: What’s cheaper, $126 or free?
If we’re talking arithmetic, the answer’s easy. But if we’re talking politics, things aren’t so simple.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor, he often flew across the state in his private jet, paying the tab from his own very deep pockets. Cost to the taxpayers: zero.
When Gov. Jerry Brown flew from Sacramento to Burbank last week to push his budget plan before the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, he flew by himself on Southwest Airlines. The bill for the state: $126 for the roundtrip fare (it’s normally $160, but Brown gets a senior discount).
In this case, it’s not the reality of the money but the symbolism of the plane ride that counts and there’s no politician better at using symbols than Jerry Brown.
Newspapers across the state wrote about the speech, but they paid even more attention to Brown’s mode of travel. “Thrifty governor charms Californians in coach” read the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle and no, there’s not enough money in the state’s coffers to buy that sort of publicity (Of course there’s not enough money in the state’s coffers to buy much of anything).
Brown played it to the hilt, reminding anyone who would listen that he was traveling on his own and saving the state money in hard financial times.
“Not only do I get a senior citizen discount on Southwest Airlines, but I stayed for nothing at a friend’s house last night,” the governor told an appreciative crowd at a Southern California political event the day after his Chamber speech. “I’m your low-budget governor.”
The governor needs the support of the public to get his budget plan moving, so he’s selling the symbols. Sure, Schwarzenegger saved the state some money with his $10,000 an hour self-paid private jet, but that’s rich guy stuff 99 percent of California voters will never experience and can barely contemplate.
The idea of buying a commercial airline ticket and flying solo to a business meeting, though, is something most Californians can relate to.
It was the same thing when Brown said last month that he was cutting the number of state-paid cell phones in half and ordering a halt to new car purchases. Together, the cuts will save California about $36 million this year, which is barely a rounding error in the $25 billion dollar budget deficit.
But voters understand cell phones and new cars and cutting those bills means something to them.
Contrast that, for example, to the far pricier debt service offset in the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, described in scintillating budget-speak as “The use of $262.4 million in weight fee revenues in 2010-11 and $700 million in 2011-12 to reimburse the General Fund for debt service payments made on certain transit and highway general obligation bonds.”
Important? Sure. But Brown knows that if he’s going to convince voters to extend existing taxes and fees in a June special election, multi-colored graphs and pie charts from the Department of Finance aren’t going to do it. He’s got to talk to people in terms they can understand and show them that he, personally, is doing everything he can to hold the financial line.
It wasn’t an accident that the first budget cuts the governor announced were to his own office and that when he pulled half the 96,000 cell phones used by state workers, he quickly said that one of those was going to be his.
Brown is going to need more than symbols to get his budget past Republicans suspicious of tax hikes and Democrats unhappy with program cuts. But by building support among rank and file Californians, the governor is hoping to not only put hometown pressure on legislators to back his budget plan but also show them that they won’t have to pay a political price if they do.
For Brown, symbols have value, so don’t be surprised if he comes out with more voter-friendly budget cuts and very visible signs of frugality as the budget battle drags on. After all, Brown didn’t spend eight years driving around the same 1974 motor pool Plymouth because he thought it was a chick magnet.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.