Prop 30 Is a Ransom Note. But Should We Pay It Anyway?

Hostage-taking and ransom demands are a nasty business. And Prop 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's temporary tax initiative, is a particularly nasty bit of business.

Structured around a budget that would trigger big cuts to schools and universities in the event it loses in November, Prop 30 takes California's kids, and future, hostage, and demands payment.

Opponents of Prop 30 have made this argument, repeatedly. The argument is correct as a factual matter, but the argument is incomplete as a political matter. Just because Gov. Brown has written a nasty ransom note to California voters doesn't mean we shouldn't pay it.

When someone takes a hostage you care about and demands a ransom, there are always reasons not to pay. That there are no guarantees that paying will result in the return of the hostage, that this may encourage the hostage-taker to take more hostages.

But there is huge risk -- that your beloved will be harmed. And so people pay ransom.

How does that calculation apply in this situation?

There certainly are strong arguments for not paying the Prop 30 ransom. For one thing, if this works, it seems likely that Brown and his allies may try for similar ransoms -- using the threat of trigger cuts to schools and other programs in the future to demand revenues.

Such future ransoms are likely because of the least-discussed part of the initiative: a constitutional amendment that locks in certain revenue streams for local governments (not schools), and will reduce legislative discretion to balance budgets in the future. In all likelihood, that means that the budget will be even harder to balance in the future.

Also, it's worth noting that  Brown has not sworn off this trigger-ransom tactic. And most tragically, he has made clear his opposition to the larger budget and constitutional reforms -- they are unrealistic, he says -- that would move us away from ransom-based budgeting.

But those concerns about ransom and reform pale in comparison to the immediate question about harm to the schools.

And that question is: how likely is it that Brown, if the initiative loses, will go forward and let the trigger cuts to schools take place if voters turn down his initiative? To answer that, we must read the hostage taker.

That is difficult to do. After more than 40 years in politics, Brown is still enigmatic. The governor, in this case, is saying that voters have a choice between adopting his initiative and its temporary tax cuts.

If the measure were to lose, his allies in the Democratic party and the labor movement would certainly seek ways to blunt the effects of the trigger cuts. And there would be a host of alternatives offered from across the political specrum for new tax measure to provide new revenues for the state.

(One measure we'd likely hear about is the Think Long Committee's proposal for a package of tax changes that would reduce some tax rates while establishing a sales tax for services and producing $10 billion in additional state revenues).

Such pressure might be hard for Brown to resist, especially if he wants to run for re-election. Going forward with the cuts would likely boost a Democratic challenger who would want to take him on in 2014.

But if Brown were to back off trigger cuts after his public threats, he would lose credibility. And Brown as governor would seem to have the power to block any attempts to pull back from the triggers.

I tend to think Brown will go forward with the trigger cuts, thus putting his own credibility over that of the schools.

But it's hard to know, and voters face a dilemma. Pay the ransom at the price of embracing a measure that won't stop budget cuts long-term and may make California a bit harer to govern. Or run the risk of seeing their schools see significant cuts, on top of years of reductions.

It is a terrible choice. Ransom choices always are.

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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