Oh, brother. California budget history is repeating itself. And so is Jerry Brown.
This week’s LAO projections of surpluses for the next five years immediately recalled the last time the ever-austere Gov. Brown fashioned a big surplus.
It was 1978, and the surplus then amounted to $5 billion – similar to today’s projections in the raw numbers, but even more massive as a percentage (the state budget was less than $15 billion).
What happened? Only a complete remaking of California and its governance system into a highly centralized, dysfunctional monster that we’re still dealing with today.
Yep, I’m talking about Prop 13.
With the state budget in surplus, Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis had little trouble making their case for the tax-cutting initiative. Heck, they argued, the government couldn’t even spend all the money it was raising, so why not cut taxes?
It took only minutes for Republican commentators to make a similar argument this week after the LAO projections came out (We want a refund to taxpayers now!) Expect to see Republicans running for governor make a similar argument.
Of course, the last time that a Brown budget surplus brought the danger of irresponsible tax cuts (not to mention new 2/3 supermajorities that were part of Prop 13), the governor made the mistake of not spending the surplus. He stuck to austerity and boasted about fiscal discipline. He couldn’t even be bothered to come up with significant tax cuts that would have stalled the momentum for Prop 13.
Those old enough to remember that time say the surplus helped Prop 13 pass.
Brown couldn’t possibly repeat the same mistake, could he?
Unbelievably, he’s singing the same austere tune. He’s resisting new spending (He’s lectured Cal State University trustees on this point a couple of times), even though the state needs to do more after a decade of budget cuts and a generation of under-investment in higher ed and infrastructure. Indeed, he’s been bragging nationally about the balanced budget; it stands to reason he’ll brag about the surpluses.
The state has no shortage of people willing to fund destructive ballot initiatives. The surpluses may make it easier to convince voters to go along with their plans.
So here we are again: Gov. Brown, a budget surplus, and an unchecked California ballot initiative system. What could possibly go wrong?