Gov. Jerry Brown has made a series of high-profile announcements about budget-cutting actions that produce very little in savings: legislators were stripped of their cars, state employees were stripped of their phones, and last week the governor declared he was going after roughly $13 million in advances paid to state employees that had never beeen paid back. (The state's budget shortfall over two years was about $26 billion).
The political theory behind these small announcements is obvious: Brown figures that if he shows he's getting tough on state workers, legislators and his own administration, voters will see he's getting tough on waste and thus will be more likely to go along with the temporary tax extensions he wants.
But is the theory right?
My view: it isn't. There's been no measurable decline in public suspicion that government is full of waste. And Brown's actions, instead of reassuring voters that he's tough on waste, may simply remind voters of their suspicions. Brown isn't changing any minds -- he's reinforcing the mostly wrongheaded notions of Californians who see a third of the government or more as waste. (California's state government is one of the leanest in the country, with per capita spending levels that rank near the bottom of all 50 states).
Brown needs to change his messaging and stop using messages that blame the government and legislators -- and instead focus attention on the fact that everyone -- including voters -- shares the blame for the state's troubles. And by moving away from blame, Brown could spark a bigger conversation about why the budget system doesn't work, and why people's voters don't much matter because the state's long constitution and maze of fiscal rules limit the ability of lawmakers and governors to give the voters what they say they want.
The more Brown talks about government waste, the deeper he's digging his hole.