Will Californians trust Jerry Brown enough to vote for his tax increase?

After outlining drastic cuts Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown pleaded with California voters to approve a temporary sales-tax increase. Some experts, but not all, think he can get it through.

By , Staff writer

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    Gov. Jerry Brown points to a chart showing how his budget plans will eventually reduce the budget deficit over the next few years as he discusses his revised state budget plan during a Capitol news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Monday.
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California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called Monday a “day of reckoning.” In the morning, he outlined more than $8 billion in cuts to higher education, social safety-net programs, and the state court system, among other things. Massive protest rallies ensued across the state.

In the afternoon, Governor Brown used two key words that politicians don’t often use, especially lately: “please” and “temporarily.”

“I’m linking these serious budget reductions ... with a plea to voters,” he said in a Los Angeles press conference. “Please increase taxes temporarily.”

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Indeed, Brown’s strategy is to warn of cuts so drastic that a tax increase starts to look more palatable. Specifically, the governor is proposing a four-year, quarter-cent increase in the state sales tax, along with a seven-year surtax of 1 to 3 percent on Californians earning $250,000 or more.

Now, the question is: Will Californians go for the proposal on the November ballot?

Two recent polls say yes. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll in March found that 64 percent support the hike, and a Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll in April found 54 percent in favor. But some analysts are not so sure. Complicating factors are a long, hot summer before the vote, high unemployment, and a competing tax initiative on the ballot.

“My best guess is that Brown will fall short. He is asking for trust, which is in mighty short supply in this state,” says via e-mail Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

Hal Dash, CEO of Cerrell Associates, a Democratic political consulting firm, sees it differently. “My feeling is that when their backs are against the wall, Californians still step up to the plate in a crisis,” he says.

In 2008 Los Angelenos, Mr. Dash notes, passed Measure R – a half-cent sales-tax increase to finance transportation projects and programs – because they knew that traffic gridlock would only worsen if they did nothing. “They won’t pass a frivolous tax hike, but when they know they are in a hole with no other way out, they will respond. My personal opinion is that there is no other way out,” Dash says.

Brown should spend time laying out the choices clearly for voters, but he shouldn’t try to do it alone, says Mark Baldassare, president of PPIC.

“He knows California very well and Californians better than anyone,” Mr. Baldassare says. “So he knows that they respond best to coalitions – Democrats with at least some Republicans, business with at least some labor – to let people know that these are extraordinary times and what he is proposing will work.”

At the moment, key Republicans are digging in their heels.

“We believe this updated proposal is part of the Governor’s strategy to try and fool Californians into accepting a costly tax increase as a necessary step,” says Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway in a statement. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Tax revenue is up two years in a row, but not enough to satisfy the spending demands of Sacramento Democrats. Republicans will continue to fight to protect funding for the classroom and public safety, while standing united together as the last line of defense for California’s taxpayers.”

Still, some experts outside California say that Brown’s strength has always been that he takes complicated issues right to the public, unlike many governors.

“He is quite good at educating the public in speeches and using YouTube videos,” says Craig Wheeland, political scientist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Noting that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) hardly ever appears in public, he says, “Most governors don’t understand the power of personal persuasion the way Jerry Brown does. I think Californians will go along because he is showing them clearly what’s at stake and emphasizing that it’s only a temporary hike.”

“If anyone can do it, Jerry can. There's no question the State of California is behind the eight ball now,” adds Roger Salazar, a Sacramento-based Democratic strategist, in an e-mail. “We're out of options, and Jerry's choice of language reflects that reality. The ‘no’ side is antitax groups. The ‘yes’ side is everyone else.”

One potential challenge for Brown is that a separate tax-hike proposal will probably be on the ballot. Some argue that could help persuade voters that the state really does need money, but conventional wisdom holds that when voters are confused or overloaded with initiatives, they tend to vote no.

“It’s far more likely that the dueling campaigns will split support for a tax increase, sending both to defeat,” concludes a Los Angeles Times editorial earlier this month.

Much depends on exactly how Brown comports himself between now and November and what happens to the economy.

“Politically, Brown might be using the larger-than-expected deficits to gin up support for his proposed tax increase,” says Matthew Hale, professor of political science at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University, in an e-mail. “People everywhere don't say yes to new taxes unless they are terrified of the alternative. Slashing schools or letting out prisoners early might be scary enough to get voters to tax themselves.”

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