Faced with the two charging rhinos of the California budget crisis, these rhinos being higher taxes and fewer services, governor-elect Jerry Brown apparently will choose to adroitly sidestep them, allowing them to go charging into the laps of you, the voter, who will then decide what to do.
This is political judo at its best, using an attacker’s force to your advantage. The plan is to call a special election next summer, telling voters the choice is to “increase taxes or cut services, what do you want to do?” He promised not to raise taxes without approval from voters, and this would fulfill that promise. Senate Minority leader Bob Dutton said Republicans in the legislature, whose support would be needed, might go along with this if real structural reforms in the budget process were part of the proposal. He added that Brown said he would “rip the Band-Aid off next year,” a reference to years of short-term budget fixes and ploys that solved nothing and instead put a small bandage on a gaping wound, and pretended everything was fine.
Brown’s budget for the spring will be dire. This will be preparation for the special election and to get people’s attention. Budget cuts are also sorely needed. The amazing, exploding California budget deficit spiked to $28 billion after realization that Obama’s tax cuts will cost California $2.7 billion in revenue. Gosh, just a few days ago the deficit was $26 billion, and shortly before that, it was $19 billion. The bean counters in Sacramento appear to be congenitally arithmetically challenged, as they clearly do not know how to count or estimate revenues accurately, preferring to be relentlessly perky about how big revenues will be truckin’ into state treasury any day now, just you wait. Then, another concrete block of reality hits them upside the head, and the deficit gets revised upwards, again.
So, can Brown succeed where Schwarzenegger failed? After all, the Governator put six budget items on the ballot in special elections, and they all lost. But what Brown is doing is different. Spending will be slashed first. There will be much pain and gnashing of teeth as a result. (My pet projects, like renewable energy, may get clobbered. Your favorites probably will too.) However, and this is the crucial part, Brown wants to make voters part of the process. He wants their input. He proposes a state-wide debate on the budget, and then voters get to say what they want.
For way too long, the budget process has been contemptuous of the public, with closed-door negotiations and the only outsiders who get invited are lobbyists. This must change. It’s hardly democratic and leads to voters thinking state politicians are simply bought and paid for. If Brown can pull off a genuine discussion statewide on the budget via a special election, then we all gain. Some of us won’t like the final outcome, whatever it is, but they will have had a part in it. And that could make all the difference in fixing the budget. Let’s hope so, because we have no remaining timeouts.