Regular readers know that I find Gov. Jerry Brown’s approach to the budget crisis (aka “the Steinbergian problem”) and to California’s governance nightmare totally puzzling. Nothing he does seem to make any sense.
But perhaps I’m wrong. So after much thinking and too much time in the afternoon San Gabriel Valley sun, this thought occurs:
Brown’s actions might make sense if there were a deeply, deeply secret plan. Which there probably isn’t.
But let’s assume there were: Here’s my sun-baked theory of the plan:
Brown has always known that the state can’t be fixed without redesign of the budget process and constitution. But how to get there?
He knew the difficulties, particularly for a governor, of attacking constitutional and budget reform quickly and head on. And he knew that forces on the right and left were committed to their old narratives and usual bogeymen. The right said the state could solve its problems with spending discipline and austerity. The left said the state could solve its problems with more taxes, particularly on the rich. And the broad middle wanted to see redistricting and top-two primary work first – and wasn’t feeling enough personal budget pain to embrace dramatic action.
Brown understood all this and realized that fighting against these narratives of left and right would only delay the meltdown necessary for big change.
So the solution became obvious: he would embrace both the left and right arguments.
So he came out for big, destructive cuts in spending, and for pension reform. He made a fetish of being tight on spending on the salaries and perks the right likes to point to when justifying the need to cut a state government.
But he also was for tax increases, like the left wanted. His original tax increases were progressive, but when unions wanted higher taxes on the rich, he embraced even more progressivity.
Just as he expected, his push for these policies – budget austerity and higher taxes – was opposed broadly. The left hated the spending cuts and the right hated the tax increases. And he wasn’t able to get tax increases and didn’t get nearly what he sought in spending cuts.
But merely being blocked wouldn’t be enough. Brown knew that both sides of the spending-tax argument needed to feel real defeat. So he delayed pivoting away from his failed austerity and tax-hike policies – and instead doubled down on them. Indeed, he waited until as late as possible to qualify an initiative for the November 2012 ballot.
Brown carefully framed that as a public referendum on both of his sure-to-fail policies: austerity and tax hikes.
His initiative would raise taxes on the rich, and also be tied to an austerity budget, through trigger cuts. Brown did this because he wanted to lose, and lose big. He would allow the state’s voters to deliver a harsh verdict, by voting no on the taxes while also decrying the trigger cuts.
That vote would be a thorough public repudiation of both the right’s austerity and the left’s progressive taxation. Once the November 2012 election was over, he would say, we’ve tried everything, and none of it works. The public doesn’t want cuts. The public doesn’t want taxes.
So the only way out is big reforms – of taxes, of budget, of the constitution.
He would begin 2013 by announcing a full-court press – relentless, without delays – for big reforms. Of the tax system, the budget system and the constitution itself.
Which had been Brown’s plan all along.