Will Jerry Brown pull it off? While most eyes focused on governors are zeroing in on the Wisconsin union-busting scheme, Brown is on a full-court press to balance the biggest state budget shortfall in the country.
The new/renewed governor of California is on a fast track to try to quickly solve the state's chronic-gone-crisis budget problems with a combination of big program cuts and extensions of 2009's tax hikes.
Having promised no tax increase without voter approval in winning his landslide victory over billionaire Meg Whitman's biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history, Brown is shooting for a June special election. Democrats are mostly going along, as they know that the real world alternative -- even more draconian cuts -- is worse. Republicans are, of course, balking, still gripped by the Cult of No.
In this key TV ad from his landslide-winning campaign, Jerry Brown declared that California "is in a real mess" and laid out his approach.
As solutions go, Brown's is most imperfect. The budget cuts are harsh, hurting the poor and those with medical needs. Higher education takes a big hit. K-12 education fares relatively well, but it will take a huge hit if the revenues aren't passed.
And about those tax extensions? They're extensions of the taxes barely passed two years ago, slightly elevated over what they were before on sales, incomes, and vehicle licenses. I have a poll from Brown's pollster, Jim Moore, that indicates that most Californians aren't aware that they're paying more.
This, along fear of being out-spent by Democrats, may well account for the attitude of two ranking Republicans with whom I appeared on Warren Olney's award-winning Which Way LA? show the night of Brown's State of the State address. State Senate Republican Caucus chairman Bob Huff and well-known far right Flash Report blogger and state Republican Party vice chairman Jon Fleischman were full-tilt on the no side.
They wanted no part of a public vote on Brown's plan to extend the tax hikes. Fleischman made it clear they were afraid of losing, even when I pointed out that the taxes in question aren't exactly popular even if people don't know they've been paying more. Both insisted on a cuts-only approach to solving the $26 billion shortfall.
But did they have a plan? Of course not. Huff said he didn't want $26 billion worth of cuts, he wanted $26 billion of "reforms." Whatever that's supposed to mean. Fleischman acknowledged what I pointed out, that he had written a few years ago that it was essential to Republican strategy to propose no actual alternative plan which could and would be torn to shreds. Their real plan? Sit back and say no.
During his swearing in as governor two months ago, Brown drew widespread laughter as he insisted that he had "no mental reservation" about taking the office.
Is there a better way to do California's revenue structure, heavily dependent on the good fortune of the wealthy, the proceeds of which plunged in the Great Global Recession and still haven't recovered? Of course. The sales tax, once dominant, could be re-tooled to reflect a much more service-oriented economy. The state could have an oil severance tax. Tax loopholes could be examined and filled. The income tax could be re-jiggered.
All those things develop immediate big-time institutional opposition in a legislative system which requires a two-thirds vote to raise a tax and only a majority vote to cut a tax. They take time. Brown doesn't have time. He has a crisis which should not exist, but does.
This is the week in which Brown wants to win votes of the full Legislature on his plan to solve the state's chronic budget crisis with a combination of major program cuts and revenue extensions. Will he get some Republican votes to avoid having to try a procedural gambit not requiring California's unusual two-thirds super-majority? He's definitely in the hunt.
Does he need the votes this week? Not actually. But he needs them fairly soon to make a June special election. This is going to be a story in which Brown never has the votes, or in which he doesn't have them until he does.
Brown has garnered impressive support from business groups of late, which would prove very helpful in providing cover to Republican legislators willing to step away from the far right doctrine that grips their state party. And he's been talking at length for quite awhile with Republican legislators, whether they agree or not.
That's one reason why this has been a rather dull period. It's the time for being nice. But Jerry Brown, alas, is not here to entertain. At least not now. He's here to get the state government through a very sticky wicket.
As a result, Brown has been largely in stealth mode since the election. This quicksilver figure who made magazine covers traveling the globe with his rock queen girlfriend during his first time around as governor has been closeted in endless behind-the-scenes conversations with mostly disagreeing, unglamorous politicians for months since his election.
In one of his few public appearances outside the state capital since becoming governor, Brown delivered this breezy but pointed speech to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce last month in downtown LA.
It's a great opportunity for Republicans to deal in order to get some big reforms that many independents and even Democrats think are necessary -- on public pensions, regulation, and the budget. But do they have the wit to win? Or are they more comfortable being locked into a little Young Americans for Freedom treehouse?
Ironically, it may be new electoral reforms championed by Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, that adds most to Brown's own powers of persuasion on Republicans not permanently imprisoned by the Cult of No.
Politicians will soon have to run in open primaries, in districts drawn not by partisan gerrymanderers but by a citizens commission. That means that in at least some areas, it will require more than appealing to hardcore hyper-partisans in order to succeed.
In addition to the big cuts and tax extensions, Brown is planning to do away with redevelopment and enterprise zones, and to realign many services closer to the local level.
He's been getting a lot of push-back on this, perhaps most of all, oddly enough, on redevelopment agencies. His plan got a boost when California state Controller John Chiang today issued a report on his auditors' investigation of 18 redevelopment agencies around the state.
While the redevelopment agencies and their allies in local government, and in the state Legislature who used to be in local government, make vast claims for the efficacy of using property taxes to promote specific development projects -- frequently benefiting the development interests who bankroll local candidates -- and even more vast claims about the number of jobs created, Chiang's investigators found something very different.
Brown met with the Bay Area Council, a powerful centrist business organization, on Friday in San Francisco.
In reality, only a few of the redevelopment agencies investigated tracked job growth in any meaningful way. And those were generally skewed in such a way as to be non-serious. The methodology for determining economic benefits is slipshod. And the funds themselves are frequently used as a general purpose cookie jar. You can look at the report here.
The state Controller's Office findings track with similar findings from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst Office. The issue arises because Brown, who recognizes that some good projects do emerge from the redevelopment process, wants to repurpose most of these funds for basic services.
"For a government activity which consumes more than $5.5 billion of public resources annually, we should be troubled that there are no objective performance measures demonstrating that taxpayer's are receiving optimal return for each invested dollar," said Controller Chiang in a statement. "Locally-controlled economic development is vital to California's long-term prosperity. However, the existing approach - born in the 1940's - is not how anyone concerned with performance, efficiency, and accountability would draw it up today."
Redevelopment was originally enacted to deal with urban blight. It's since become a big political cookie jar for development projects. Many Republican legislators, ostensibly concerned with cutting government spending, actually support this because they became accustomed to getting support from redevelopment agency benefiting the developers who gave them the money for their campaigns.
Will Brown pull this off? I think that in the end, he will. Simply because the alternative is worse. And I believe there will be enough Republicans who fear what that future looks like, both for California and for them in newly drawn districts with more moderate primary voters, to overcome their fear of the entrenched Cult of No.