With the entire California government in blame-game mode over the great budget deal that wasn’t, the man in the middle of it all – Gov. Jerry Brown – is hitting the road.
The idea is not to escape the name-calling, finger-pointing, and condemnation over the failure of the Legislature to authorize a special election to extend some taxes, but rather to seize the moment and make a preemptive strike on the issue of public employee pensions, his Republican opponent’s most appealing issue with voters.
Governor Brown was seeking the extra tax revenues, accompanied by billions in spending cuts, to erase California’s caustic $26 billion budget shortfall.
He’ll also take his case for tax increases directly into the most hostile of areas: Republican districts – many of which he has not visited since taking office – where his opponents have signed “no new taxes” pledges.
If that sounds like a fool’s errand or counterintuitive to some, political experts here say it’s a great idea.
“I think it’s a brilliant move because he’s going right to the people, who are clearly not wanting to hear about the alternative of a total-cuts budget,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.
“It’s clearly his effort to take the issues right to those specifically in GOP districts and say ‘your representatives rejected this and I need to explain it to you.’ It keeps the trust in his promise that ‘I won’t do anything [on taxes] without talking to you.’ ”
The idea will no doubt annoy his fellow Democrats, she says, but Brown can finesse the idea in person that he is still willing to make more cuts but “let’s bridge a few billion this way as well.”
Taking the lead on pension reform
Brown will visit Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis groups and release more of the YouTube videos that he already has, talking off the cuff directly to voters. He may enlist surrogates from several state and city chambers of commerce who have said they support his ideas. The moves will also offset criticism about the recently failed budget talks, that Brown was unwilling to ruffle employee unions by trimming one of their most revered benefits.
Others say Brown has no choice but to take the lead in pension reform, partly because he still needs to seek voter support for a tax measure, mostly likely by initiative in the fall.
“When he does, opponents will say that he’s doing nothing about long-term budget problems and that he’s asking taxpayers to support fat-cat pensions. His proposals aim to undercut both arguments,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
“Do they go far enough? Republican politicians say no. They want mandatory, defined-contribution plans. But his target audience consists not of GOP lawmakers, but of moderate voters who might go along with taxes but only if they think that he is really trying to curb spending in the short and long term.”
For a summary of Brown’s current proposals, click here.
“The devil’s in the details,” said Marci Fritz, Democratic president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, a pension reform advocacy group, to the San Jose Mercury News. “What pension cap will he impose?”
Only 'the obvious stuff'
Republicans are concerned that Brown-led pension reform will not go far enough.
“The Democrats in the Legislature, seeing the handwriting on the wall, and in an attempt to minimize the damage to union members, have agreed with Brown to let him push for reform for perceived abuses,” says Gary Aminoff, former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. But, he says, addressing those perceived abuses, such as inflated pension levels, result in “minimal reductions in taxpayer liability.”
And former Republican Assemblyman Roger Niello, who is preparing his own pension initiative for the fall, says Brown’s proposals only address “all the obvious stuff that everyone agrees about.”
“They’re important and are a good start,” says Niello, but they don’t address the “fundamental cost drivers.” His initiative, by contrast, does address those “cost drivers” by raising the retirement age for public employees from 50 or 55 to 62, and requiring employees to contribute at least as much to their pensions as the state does.
Because of Niello’s initiative, it is crucial – say other observers – that Jerry Brown act as fast as possible.
“Jerry Brown is trying to get ahead of the curve and stave off what may be a Republican attempt to put a drastic pension reform measure on the 2012 ballot,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.
“If the unions don’t agree to some major concessions now,” he says, “they may have to spend millions of dollars fighting an initiative that is far more draconian than what Brown is proposing.”