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By Winning on Prop 30, Brown May Lose

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Opinion: Maybe Brown Should Hope for Loss

Gov. Jerry Brown has been out every day this week promoting Prop. 30.

The conventional wisdom is that, with Prop 30, Gov. Jerry Brown has put his governorship at risk. He’s devoted so much time, attention and fundraising to the measure that many commentators say that, if Prop 30 loses, he’s finished.

After watching the two-year-long odyssey to Prop 30, I now think the opposite is true. The bigger danger to Brown politically is if Prop 30 wins.

How’s that? Because with the victory of Prop 30, Brown would fully own politically whatever happens next with the budget and schools. And since Prop 30 won’t solve the budget or schools (the state’s deficiencies in this area are too big and ingrained to be resolved by the small temporary tax increases of 30), Brown would be doubly responsible for the new budget cuts, including to the schools and higher education.

If Prop 30 wins, many of those who backed it will inevitably feel that they were victims of a bait and switch. They will come to realize that Brown asked them to throw money into a budget that can’t be balanced, since the budget is a ratchet that constantly boosts the deficit by ratcheting up spending and ratcheting down revenues.

And all the ire of these Prop 30 backers would be directed at Brown, who has badly oversold his measure.

That’s why Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was actually being constructive when he criticized Brown on the radio for promising there won’t be future tuition hikes for California’s university students. There certainly will be such hikes – even if Prop 30 passes.

Essentially, if Prop 30 were to win, Brown would never escape the broken budget system.

Compared to that prospect, a defeat for Prop 30, while causing some harm to Brown politically, would offer opportunity. Brown also has an obvious out with Prop 30 -- he can tell voters that he gave them a choice, and they chose to enact big cuts.

He may even be able to avoid the political and actual real pain of those trigger cuts by letting lawmakers and others push through a reversal of the triggers (perhaps even over his veto). He can also cast blame for his defeat on Molly Munger and the secretive Arizona donors who were his rivals in the Prop 30 fight.

The defeat of Prop 30 also would provide freedom. Brown would then be open to move off the broken approach of fixing the budget with temporary taxes (and new constitutional budget obligations), and instead launch an effort to redesign the budget system itself.

He has dismissed the idea of broader reform as he sold the taxes that became Prop 30. But with Prop 30 dead, he could turn the page to the sort of reform that is the only real way out of the mess.

This would require a pivot, but Brown has a decent record of pivots in his career. But the defeat of Prop 30 would leave him the option – while victory for Prop 30 would keep him trapped within a failed strategy.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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