Jerry Brown: Did he raise taxes as California governor, or not?

That question is at the heart of this week's dustup involving a 1992 CNN report, former rival Bill Clinton, and Jerry's Brown's current rival in the race for California governor, Meg Whitman. Hey, the answer is complicated, too.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Sept. 2 file photo, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, is seen at a campaign stop at Laney College in Oakland, Calif.
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Did Jerry Brown cut taxes when he was governor of California from 1975 to 1983, or did he raise them? That question is at the heart of this week’s Golden State dustup involving Mr. Brown, Bill Clinton, Meg Whitman, CNN, Factcheck.org, and a cast of TV attack ads now playing on flat screens up and down the Pacific coast.

To really understand what’s going on here, we have to dial the way-back machine to 1992, and revisit the days when Brown and Clinton were verbally pummeling each other in the Democratic presidential primaries. It was two heavyweights going at it, round after round – Ali versus Foreman, Red Sox versus Yankees, Jon Gosselin versus Kate.

At one point, during a debate, Clinton attacked Brown for calling himself a tax-cutter.

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“CNN, not me, CNN says his assertion about his tax record was, quote, just plain wrong,” said Clinton at the time.

OK, let’s return to today. Brown is running for California governor. (Hold it, are we really back yet? Brown is running for a job he had before he ran for that higher job, the one with the White House, which he didn’t get? We’re a little confused, but it looks like that’s what’s happening.)

GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman is airing ads that show footage of Clinton’s ’92 statement that Brown raised taxes on Californians. “He doesn’t tell people the truth,” said Clinton in that old debate, as shown in Ms. Whitman’s new ad.

This led Brown to take an ill-advised jab at his longtime rival. At a campaign appearance over the weekend, he questioned Clinton’s honesty and made an oblique reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He’s since apologized for this, and that’s what much of the news coverage of this flaplet has focused on.

But here’s the thing: Brown didn’t raise taxes when he was governor. Or, at the least, the story is more complicated than Clinton charged in 1992 and as Whitman portrays it today.

That’s what Factcheck.org says, anyway. The CNN story that Clinton referrred to in 1992 had said that state taxes were higher in Brown’s last year as governor than in his first, but that was not true – they were lower. A bit. CNN was wrong.

Ironically, the CNN reporter on that story, Brooks Jackson, is now the director of Factcheck.org. He wrote a piece for the organization’s website explicating his old mistake.

However, as Mr. Jackson notes, state taxes, measured as a portion of each $100 of personal income, did go up for four of Brown’s eight years as governor. In six of those years, the tax burden was higher than before Brown took office.

“The point I was trying to make in 1992 remains valid. Brown’s claims to have been a tax-cutting governor – then and now – need to be seen in context,” writes Jackson.

Rising taxes in Brown’s early years helped fuel a tax revolt in California that culminated in the passage of Proposition 13, which rolled back local property taxes and made it much more difficult to raise state taxes. Brown opposed this measure until it passed, after which he embraced it and directed its implementation, according to Jackson.

Brown – who is currently in a dead heat with Whitman, according to polls – has called on his current rival for his old job to take down the ad in question. A Whitman spokesman has said her campaign continues to stand behind the spot.

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