Three Faces: Jerry Brown and Taking the Budget “To the People”


Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown's comments yesterday that he would "go to the people, step by step" to solve the budget crisis were at once encouraging and maddening. In making that promise during a CNBC interview, Brown said that tax increases and budget cuts should receive voter approval, and that he, as governor, would level with the public.

It was a brief, rare and important glimpse of Brown's thinking about the budget. But it also raised questions. As I thought about what Brown said, I had three reactions, all contradictory.

1. No duh, Jerry.

In California, so many tax and spending policies have been locked in place by ballot initiative or by voter-approved constitutional amendments that making any serious budget fix on spending or taxes would likely require voter approval. In this way, Brown wasn't revealing very much -- he was stating the obvious. California is the only state in the union, it should be noted, where a measure that's been approved by voters can only be changed by another vote of the people.

2. Didn't the Governator try this before? And how did that work?

Gov. Schwarzenegger came into office promising to be the "People's Governor" and involve them in big decisions on the budget. And he did. The problem came when the voters started to make those decisions. In March 2004, voters signed off on two budget measures championed by Schwarzenegger -- one a $15 billion general obligation bond to paper over the deficit and the other a balanced budget constitutional amendment that didn't seem to have produced a balanced budget.

The governor went again to the people with budget reforms in the 2005 and 2009 special elections. Schwarzenegger's proposals in both those years would have put limits on the growth of spending in the name of making the budget more predictable and, in the governor's words, "smoother." But the voters turned both down, in part because of concerns about cuts in government services.

Which is why it's fair to be dubious about Brown's trust in voters. Californians, and especially California voters, have a long habit of voting for "something for nothing" measures and turning down stuff that's hard. The hard cuts is that difficult budget decisions -- on cuts and tax increases -- may be easier without voters. On the other hand, there is some recent history in neighboring states -- both Arizona and Oregon -- of voters approving tax increases via ballot measures that were very, very specific in showing where the money would go.

3. Maybe, just maybe, Brown gets it.

The most optimistic reading of what Brown's comments? That he understands the state needs comprehensive reform of its politics and budget processes. And to make such reforms, you need the voters to sign off. Unfortunately, other things Brown has said lately -- about the need to move slowly and not "rock the boat" in Sacramento -- suggests he's going to try small piecemeal changes. That's conventional wisdom in politics. But small-bore changes don't fit the needs of California.

The state has seen plenty of small reforms, many of which have made things worse. It's one of those rare times when the governor and the people need to swing for the fences, together.

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