A Modest Goal for State of the State? Teaching a Clueless Public


Gov. Jerry Brown's state of the state speech, scheduled for 5 p.m. today, is being touted as an opportunity to sell the public and legislators on his budget plan, which includes calling a June special election on tax increases.

But given the sorry state of public knowledge about the budget, Brown's focus should be on educating the public on the very basics of how the budget works. This is crucial because if the public were to vote today, they'd be voting on the basis of faulty knowledge of how the state works. In a recent poll, only 9 percent of those surveyed knew that the number-one spending item in the state budget is schools and that the number one source of revenue is personal income taxes.

Even at the risk of seeming pedantic and boring, Brown should repeat a handful of facts over and over -- so often that these basic facts end up in all media accounts.

1. Roughly half the budget goes to education, so you can't cut the budget severely without hurting schools.

2. Personal income tax is the biggest slice of revenues in the state budget. Sales tax is next. So it's impossible to close the budget with taxes on just a handful of industries that are in disfavor.

3. The public's own desire for "something for nothing" -- services without taxes to pay for them -- is at the heart of the crisis. Not political behavior. Brown should say he's not going to shield the public from your irresponsibility any longer.

The test of such a speech -- of Brown's public messaging over the next few weeks -- should be whether he can move the needle at all in terms of public understanding of the budget. Since he's putting the decisions on the budget in the hands of voters, he needs to do everything he can to make sure those voters are making decisions based on actual facts -- not their false impressions of how budgeting and taxation works in this state. 

Perhaps the governor's web site can even rig up a quiz. Or at the very least, link to the web site of Next 10, which explains the budget to voters and allows them to make a choice.

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