Campaign Check: Brown's Budget Plans

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Here's a shortcut for thinking about what Jerry Brown has, so far, said he would do about the state's budget crisis if elected governor on November 2: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

No, I'm not kidding. The traditional wedding requirement (and hey, the voters would be agreeing to a marriage of sorts with a new chief executive) works.

This week's edition of our Campaign Check segment on The California Report focuses on what the Democratic nominee for governor has said about his fiscal plan and whether it stands up to scrutiny.

For starters, it's worth noting that the details of Brown's budget fixes have only recently come to light. For weeks, the former-and-possible-future governor focused largely on the budget "process" -- rarely saying more than he intends to cajole and woo legislators towards compromise on budget fixes, starting even before he'd take office next January. That 'roll up my sleeves' promise is still out there, but is finally being fleshed out with some other ideas -- most notably an eight page document (PDF) published on his campaign website recently with no fanfare.

So back to our analogy...

Something Old

The Brown budget plan dusts off several ideas that have been bandied about for a few years, which could be called both 'old' and 'borrowed,' but for these let's stick with the former. The oldest one is less a proposal than a promise according to his outline: "I have done eight state budgets and I know the ins and outs of California's incredibly complex financial situation," he writes. Perhaps, but the state budget has grown in both size and complexity since Brown moved out of the governor's Capitol office in 1983. Just two examples are worth mentioning: the full effects of the property tax rollback of Proposition 13 had still not been felt by then, and the most dominating part of the budget pie -- the mandatory minimum funding mechanisms of Proposition 98 -- wasn't approved by voters until 1988. Brown may remember what it's like to haggle over a budget with legislators, but if he wins he will learn it's a lot more complicated than it used to be.

This category of budget proposals also includes some things that may not themselves be old, but are undeniably a return to another part of the Brown-as-governor approach: unusual. Back then, he received a lot of attention (sometimes famously) for unusual ideas like a state owned communications satellite and for selling off a newly constructed governor's mansion. This time around, Brown's signature creative ideas include solar panels on the rooftops of state-owned buildings and taking a pass on hiring a gubernatorial secretary of education. Those aren't likely to add up to much money, though, so they're hard to call a budget solution.

And one more idea that's old: demanding more money from the federal government for incarcerating felons who are also undocumented immigrants. Governors keep trying, but the feds keep on shortchanging California what it's owed.

Something New

Perhaps the proposal most likely to be called 'new' (and some will dispute that, no doubt) is Brown's suggestion that the state give what's known as zero-based budgeting a try. In laymen's terms, it means starting the budget process with each program at zero and only spending on them what can be properly justified. The suggestion appears not only on its own in Brown's budget plan, but a spokesperson says it's also what the candidate has in mind when the document promises "structural revisions" to the annual budget process.

According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, 17 states have some form of zero-based budgeting on the books, but most are what's known as modified zero based budgeting (and California is included, because we do sometimes use 'sunset laws' that set expirations on spending). True zero-based budgeting is tough, and controversial. Limits on the process include federally-controlled entitlement programs (of which states have limited control) and interest group politics, which one can only imagine would be fierce in a state like California.

And then there's the little problem of California's voter approved initiatives that have all sorts of blockades on true zero-based budgeting -- and tops on the list: the already mentioned Prop 98 school funding guarantee. Brown's spokesperson says the candidate is not in favor of tinkering with this constitutional amendment, which means Brown as governor would be excluding a big chunk of the annual general fund budget... if, that is, the tense partisan world of the state Capitol would ever go along with this kind of budget process.

Something Borrowed

This seems to be the single biggest category of Jerry Brown's budget proposals, as he suggests a number of budget reforms/fixes/ideas that have been floating around Sacramento for the past few years. The list includes mandating that all new spending proposals identify a funding source (known as 'pay as you go') and under discussion both as legislation and by reform-minded folks; fighting court-ordered mandates on spending for things like prison (everyone's trying to do that in the current budget negotiations); lowering health care costs by expanding purchasing power in new partnerships between the Medi-Cal program and CalPRERS (an idea that arose during Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2007 unsuccessful Year of Health Care reform); a commission to reform the state's tax system (enough said); and an expanded rainy day fund of reserve cash (ditto on the 'enough said' reaction).

That's not to imply that these borrowed ideas are either lacking merit or, in some cases, unworkable. But because they aren't new, voters would have to assume that it would be Jerry Brown's personal powers of persuasion that would move the needle here.

And one final borrowed idea, which was blogged here a few weeks ago: the candidate is openly mulling some kind of special statewide election in 2011 to either fix next year's projected budget dilemma, or the budget process itself.

Something Blue

The final category takes a bit of creative license with the fact that, thanks largely to the TV work of a late political journalist, Democrats are now the 'blue' party in politics. Brown's budget proposal offers some decidedly Democratic viewpoints on things, though not always in the conventional manner... and perhaps not as many as some die-hard Dems would like. Still, he calls for budget savings through going after tax cheats and points, in particular, to companies that pay people under the table for their work. He also has been hinting, without too many details, at a plan to realign state and local services -- not always Democratic, but something pushed in 2010 by Dem legislators as part of a budget proposal (and now likely not to happen, according to Capitol sources). And while not in the budget plan itself, Brown is aligning himself with those who think the social safety net has been endangered by recent budgets; just this afternoon he told the Sacramento Bee editorial board that he would avoid those parts of the budget if elected.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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