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Jerry Brown and Crossing Party Lines to Save California

by Bob Morris, published

When Jerry Brown became governor of California in 2011 he disappeared from public view for six months, spending much time talking to Republicans, crossing party lines in an attempt to work out a grand deal on the California budget. It didn’t work.

Instead, Brown hit a brick wall. "Jerry’s had sort of an Obama trajectory," says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs.

At first, he spent more time with the Republicans than Arnold [Schwarzenegger] did. But like Obama, Jerry didn’t understand he could do nothing with them and get nothing from them. I don’t think he fully grasped the cynical dynamics of the current Republican Party.

But the intractability and cynicism wasn’t coming just from the Republican side. Republicans certainly (and quite fairly) said Democrats weren’t budging on pension reform and spending cuts, just as Democrats said Republicans remained immovable on the possibility of tax increases.

A high school history teacher said, “When compromise breaks down, war breaks out,” which is certainly true of state legislatures too. A friend volunteered with a peace group to help end a vicious civil war in another country and was involved in negotiations at a high level. The most important lesson he learned was that if everyone says they want compromise and an end to war but the war keeps going, then everyone involved is probably getting some benefit, like political power or financial support, by continuing the hostilities. Perhaps some of that same process is paralyzing California politics too.

Gov. Brown and President Obama did try to cross party lines. I’m sure some Republicans tried to meet them halfway too. But even though our partisan divides may seem insurmountable, we need to keep trying, because time is running out, especially for California.

The California budget deficit continues to grow, forcing ever more borrowing and accounting tricks to keep the lights on. But this is a shell game. Sooner or later the game will be over. California services, schools, roads, and infrastructure are decaying at an alarming rate. The ogre of unfunded public pension liability lurks just over the horizon.

Gov. Brown is now betting everything on voters passing Proposition 30 in November. It would provide anywhere from $6.8 to 9 billion in new tax revenue.  If it passes, things will still be dire for California. If it doesn’t pass, then the budget cuts California has experienced so far will seem minor compared to what will come.

From an interview with Gov. Brown by Marc Cooper.

Let’s say you do achieve victory. Today we have a $16 billion deficit. Your tax increase will meet only half of that. We need more cuts.

Back to cuts? We need half cuts, half taxes. I keep saying that.

Even with this initiative? Or double. It’s either $16 billion or $8 billion. That’s the issue. You can’t stop the cuts—we’re living beyond our means.

Crossing party lines and coming together may be the only way to solve the crisis because it's clear that protracted partisanship just makes things worse.

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