Partisan Gridlock No, Political Battle Yes

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Getty/Justin Sullivan

For a governor who took office with more actual experience than virtually any elected leader in modern times, the long-awaited announcement of a budget-related initiative seems to mark the official end to Act I of Jerry Brown's return to Sacramento.

In his inaugural speech on January 3, Brown said the following: "The budget I propose will assume that each of us who are elected to do the people's business will rise above ideology and partisan interest and find what is required for the good of California."

Contrast that with today's 'open letter' to the public. "I am going directly to the voters," writes Brown, "because I don’t want to get bogged down in partisan gridlock."

With that, the governor now embarks to clear a different set of hurdles than the ones he faced this year, trading the Capitol cajoling of 2011 for a statewide sales pitch in 2012.

The tax proposal itself offers very few surprises, being one of the worst kept secrets in Sacramento (PDF). Its temporary income and sales tax hikes would be earmarked for local schools, public safety, and mental health programs.

"None of these new revenues can be spent on state bureaucracy or administrative costs," says the opening section of the initiative.

Even so, Brown's letter admits that the result of those taxes will be a lessening of the fiscal burden now borne by the state budget.

"The stark truth is that without new tax revenues, we will have no other choice but to make deeper and more damaging cuts to schools, universities, public safety and our courts," he writes.

The income tax hike on those making $500,000 and above, combined with the half-cent sales tax hike for everyone, is estimated to be worth $7 billion a year -- leading legislative Republicans to instantly brand it a "$35 billion Tax Increase."

The proposal's targeting of schools and local services certainly helps identify two of the pillars of the coalition Brown now needs to build. While the state's most powerful teachers union has kept quiet, many believe it will be the governor's camp. As for locals, who helped Brown craft this year's major realignment of state and county services, the next few weeks will be intense.

Last week, Brown addressed the annual meeting of the California State Association of Counties (CSAC), and used the speech to urge the organization to join his fledgling effort rather than campaign on the realignment initiative the group filed earlier this month.

"We have to make a decision very soon," said CSAC executive director Paul McIntosh, "as to whether or not to proceed with collecting signatures."

McIntosh says the leaders of the county organization likely want to work with the governor if possible. And an adviser to Brown says the governor is hoping the same spirit is out there among the various groups in organized labor and beyond that have their own tax-raising initiatives in the 2012 pipeline. If Brown can clear the field, the thinking goes, then he avoids a muddling of the tax debate during election season.

It's worth noting that the governor, who certainly seemed at home last week in the public eye selling his pension proposal to the public, chose to file the initiative in a low-key fashion and issue a written statement rather than angle for sound bites on the six o'clock news. The governor's camp seems to believe that until the campaign's coalition is fully formed, it's best to hold back on the PR blitzkrieg. Perhaps, too, we'll then see a campaign dominated by images of teachers, firefighters, and cops (where have we heard that phrase before?) rather than the state's chief politician?

The real question, of course, may be whether a well-funded opposition campaign forms. While it didn't take money to beat back the last electoral campaign on taxes in 2009, California's business community will no doubt be closely watched for clues about the road ahead. Many believe the governor's plan was crafted with an eye towards political balance -- by including a sales tax hike, even though it's unpopular with many Democrats.

And the 2012 budget saga is just starting; stay tuned for official word on the 'trigger cuts' next week.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia 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. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Sylvia Robles

    This is another poorly crafted ballot; Prop 22 for the Governor.

    The unions must not be enablers of legislative dysfunction.  We gave them back the majority vote to pass a budget.

     But I guess the “silly compromise” between highly compensated elected officials was to let the voters decide on higher taxes. I have a thought, before I vote for anything the Governor and the state legislature need to take another stab at doing their jobs. Give me a balanced budget.

    I know there is fear for our working public servants, but let us not make fear continue to support this dysfunction.

    Giving up a cell phone and state car are not enough!

  • Ace

    This proposal makes sense if we use the time bought by the temporary tax increases to pay down some debts and get our fiscal house in better order; if we don’t, it’s just another foray into putting off the inevitable.

  • Isart

    To solve the budget problem and impliment his plans he should re-visit Prop 13 commercial property adjustment only.  Brown won’t go near it. Sure it can be politically touchy but he can handle it. Do you have any idea why he won’t even discuss it? 

  • John Myers, KQED

    I’d love to ask the governor that question. Perhaps he’ll start doing some sit-down interviews.

    My hunch is that Brown is showing his pragmatic side (via his “canoe theory” of politics) and sensing that such a proposal would spark a galactic campaign battle with big bucks dropped by the business community to kill it. Keep in mind that the biggest benefactors of the Prop 13 tax protections in the business world are also some of the largest corporations. And they’ve got big checkbooks.

    There is a “split roll” initiative that’s now been filed with the AG’s office, but it’s widely seen as a “fallback” proposal for groups in case they grow disenchanted with the tax measures now on the front burner.

  • Mayday

    Legislators are the enablers of public employee unions whose pensions are unsustainable.