Brown Faces Desperate Budget Choice

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

For Jerry Brown, it’s time to put up or shut up.

As far back as last September, Brown promised voters that if he were elected, he’d put together a no-gimmicks, forward-looking spending plan, "an honest budget without the smoke and mirrors."

Well, sometime today the governor is expected to receive a budget with more smoke than a Texas barbecue and enough mirrors to fill a carnival funhouse.

And Brown will have to decide what to do with it.

You wouldn’t think it would be a hard choice. After all, in his remarks when he introduced his budget in January, Brown complained that "for 10 years this state has put together its budget with gimmicks and tricks and unrealistic expectations" and vowed it wasn’t going to happen again.

Legislators can either come up with an honest budget, balanced with a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases, or provide one balanced with cuts alone. Anything else would be dead on arrival, he warned.

But Monday, with Republicans refusing to provide the two-thirds support he needs to boost taxes and Democrats balking at slashing deeper into programs, Brown seemed to be working to erase that line in the sand.

"I will take a hard look at" the budget Democratic leaders will present him today, the first spending plan in decades that can be passed on a majority vote – no Republicans required.

The budget Democrats are expected to come up with is straight out of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s none-too-successful playbook, a spending plan that includes money that won’t be coming, efforts the courts will reject, cuts that don’t exist and revenue projections that replace accuracy with optimism.

Take, for example, the plan to raise $200 million by hitting up online retailers like Amazon for sales tax revenue. Yet just last week, Amazon announced it would pull all its business affiliations from Connecticut and Arkansas rather than pay a similar tax. You like the chances of getting that cash?

Democrats also want to take $1 billion from the First Five childhood education funds voters approved in 1998 with Prop. 10. In 2009, those same voters rejected a ballot measure that would have grabbed about half as much money from the kids’ programs. This "we don’t need no stinking voters" effort is already under legal attack.

The budget also calls for "deferring" $3.4 billion in payments to schools and borrowing $740 million from state special funds. Problem is, that money still has to be paid (or repaid), which doesn’t solve anything but only delays the ultimate reckoning.

Legislators even resurrected Schwarzenegger’s proposal to sell 11 state office buildings for $1.2 billion. You remember, that’s the effort that Brown said was the "ultimate in kicking the can down the road," when he dumped the plan in February.

And now Brown is saying he’s going to seriously consider signing this budget?

About the only guarantee is that legislators will pass some type of a budget today, since if they don’t, their paychecks stop. As backers of Prop. 25 suspected last year, the discouraging prospect of working for free has focused the efforts of lawmakers.

Of course, they only have to pass a balanced budget to keep the paychecks coming. It’s Brown who will have to decide whether to sign or veto that effort.

Don’t expect him to be in a hurry to do anything. Once he gets the budget, he has 12 days before he has to make a decision and he’s likely to use every one of them.

It will be a time for frantic negotiations, with Brown trying to come up with some sort of deal with Republicans that will get him the revenue he said is needed to carry the state until he can call a special election on taxes, possibly as soon as September.

But if that agreement doesn’t come, Brown is left with ugly choices. He can veto the "planned all-gimmicks, all the time" budget, as he has long promised to do, and push unhappy Democrats to come up with an all-cuts plan that will stretch the state’s already tattered safety net for the poor to he breaking point.

And don’t think Republicans will get a pass, because the Democrat’s first order of business will be to ram state Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s local tax bill down their throats, followed by a meat ax attack on programs benefiting GOP legislators, their districts and their allies.

Or Brown can sign what he will instantly admit is a terrible budget, blame the Republicans, and immediately start an initiative campaign for a tax election, all the time figuring that the upcoming redistricting could give Democrats a GOP-proof two-thirds majority in the Legislature after the 2012 elections.

Of course, if he does that, no one in the Legislature will believe a word he says or a threat he makes for the rest of his time in office.

Brown might call it pragmatism. But increasingly cynical voters will see it as politics as usual.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

 

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