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Analysis: Gov. Brown’s ‘Gun to the Head’ Campaign For Higher Taxes

Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown hopscotched around the state, making sure at each stop to make a pitch for Proposition 30 and threatening multibillion dollar cuts to education if voters don’t approve the initiative’s temporary taxes this November. I interviewed longtime state-government observer John Myers, political editor at KXTV in Sacramento, about Brown’s campaign.

Edited transcript:

RACHAEL MYROW: You recently blogged that the governor’s campaign reminds you of the infamous January 1973 cover of National Lampoon: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”

JOHN MYERS: Yeah, and I also wrote that it may be a little over the top to make the comparison. But the point is that when you look at the way the governor has rolled out this campaign in the early stages — and he’s now had an event in Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco — it’s very much a campaign geared towards what happens if Proposition 30 fails. He hasn’t talked a lot about all the great things that will happen if it passes. And that’s typically what you have in a ballot measure campaign. People say “Vote for us, because great things will happen.” This has been a campaign of saying, “If you don’t vote for us, doomsday comes.” And doomsday in this case, is the $5 billion to $6 billion in automatic spending cuts to schools that were written into the state budget if Prop 30 fails. That’s a very different kind of political campaign.

MYROW: This week USC released a poll that offers a couple of interesting insights. First, and this is probably the part Gov. Brown likes, a majority of those polled would vote for Proposition 30.

MYERS: They would. If you look at this poll, and if you look at all of the polls that we’ve seen in the last few weeks, the governor’s measure, which, again, would temporarily raise income taxes on the wealthiest and sales taxes on everyone, it has always polled in the low 50s, which of course is a majority of those being polled. But historically in California, if you’ve got a measure that polls below the 60 percent threshold in the early going, they don’t fare too well on election day, and so this is actually a low number.

MYROW: I was quite taken by another interesting tidbit from this poll: people ranked school funding fifth as a spending priority. This is after the economy, after jobs, after the state budget deficit and wasteful government spending.

Historically in California, if you’ve got a measure that polls below the 60 percent threshold in the early going, they don’t fare too well on election day.

MYERS: Yeah, it’s interesting, one of the folks from USC who were talking to reporters about this poll made the comment that they really feel as though voters are in a triage mode. The economy has been tough, unemployment has remained high, and voters’ historic priorities about spending and government may be shifting somewhat, or at least temporarily shifting. And clearly there’s an issue of wasteful government spending — they asked these folks in this poll about things like high-speed rail, the ongoing controversy about the hidden money in the state parks bank accounts, and the governor has tried to insist that these things have nothing to do with Proposition 30. But this poll does raise some questions about whether voters feel as though government is mismanaging the money it has, and maybe they don’t want to give any more money to government.

MYROW: This week the governor argued a state as big as California should be able to pursue more than one funding priority at the same time. “We have to be able to jump rope, chew gum and do five other things. Otherwise, we’re not going to make it,” Brown said.

Audio: Jerry Brown defends Prop 30 in a minute-and-a-half flat

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Now it appears that he sees himself in a fight to the political death with Pasadena attorney Molly Munger, who has spent millions pushing Proposition 38, which would raise taxes to fund K-12 and makes a point of saying, “This money doesn’t go to Sacramento. It goes to your local schools.” But I wonder, is this really an either-or situation, the way the governor seems to be presenting it. Why not presume voters could approve both propositions?

MYERS: People who I’ve talked to, election law experts, say, “Yes, the voters can approve both of these measures.” But, whichever one would get the most “yes” votes would probably be the only one that would go into effect. And, if in fact, Ms. Munger — the wealthy civil rights attorney — her measure went into effect, with tax revenues only for schools, then those schools could still suffer a $5 billion to $6 billion automatic trigger cut, because that’s what was drawn out in the budget if Prop. 30 fails. So, there’s a legal problem there.

But but there’s a political argument, too, that’s difficult. Which [is] if you’re the governor, are you telling people to vote for both? They don’t like taxes, but hey, here’s double taxes, in a way. And we should point out the polling is that Prop. 38, this Munger K-12 tax measure, does not have majority support in any poll I’ve seen. It is below the 50 percent threshold, and at this point it could just be a political argument. The voters really may not say ‘yes’ to that.