Opinion: Brown’s New Tax Plan Requires a Rabbit and a Hat

How can the governor reconcile the reality of mistrust of all levels of government?

Gov. Jerry Brown wants taxes on the ballot in November 2012.

His campaign promise not to raise taxes without a vote of the people requires an initiative measure.

His logic is thus:

  • 2012 will be a presidential race guaranteed to bring out more Democrats.
  • Enthusiasm for President Barack Obama will bring out the base of minorities, labor union members, women and teachers—who ordinarily support tax hikes.
  • The economy will be turning around.
  • Voters will see the damage done to education with the current cuts and be willing to tax themselves for their children’s sake.
  • Labor unions will lead the drive to bring out the vote alongside community organizers and the Obama campaign.

The flaws in Brown’s logic are thus:

  • Enthusiasm for Obama—even in California—has waned among women, independents and the young. And California doesn’t even rank among the top 10 supporters for the president—coming in at only 53 percent job approval, according to Gallup. So, expecting Obama to carry an unpopular tax initiative over the finish line is unrealistic. 
  • California remains heavily Democratic and thus, uncompetitive.  The voter turnout will be muted at best. A death penalty repeal may bring out more Democrats, but a tax initiative will bring out even more Republicans.
  • The economy is not turning around. California’s unemployment rate is 12 percent. Not ideal for more taxes when people keep losing jobs.
  • Voters—even by Brown’s own admission—are not likely to vote for increased taxes, whether called “revenue enhancements, fees,” “blended resources” or other “bonded indebtedness.”  Taxpayers’ suppressed anger is only mounting.
  • The damage done to education is about more than money. Even there, trust is evaporating. The outrage over higher “fees” at the state's colleges and universities—alongside generous salary hikes for administrators () only fuels the backlash among voters.

Thus, the real dilemma for Brown—who will need to pull a rabbit out of a hat—is how to reconcile the reality of mistrust of all levels of government; great dissatisfaction with the way things are going; an ever deepening Great Recession; and increasingly unpopular politicians who insist they must burden those who have lost their jobs, their homes, their savings and any sense of security—with yet more taxes!

Small wonder that even the governor realizes it is an uphill battle. 

Brown admitted to The Sacramento Bee, “The path forward is not an easy one, because there is a strong resistance to tax increases.”

Add the strong national sentiment running against government, and Brown’s remarks constitute an understatement.

According to a recent Gallup poll, only 11 percent of Americans are satisfied with the ways things are going in the U.S. Look at the trend lines.

Add these givens to Brown’s dilemma:

  • Few believe that the governor has cut all the so-called waste, fraud, and abuse in California. Think prisons, workers’ compensation, MediCal, etc.
  • Brown’s own job approval (at 48 percent in March, according to a Field Poll (PDF)) must surely be sinking with the economy and the budget mess.
  • The Legislature’s job approval is even lower at 16 percent.
  • And state revenue was $500 million below July budget estimates.

So where does the rabbit come in?

Simple, redistricting changes take effect with the November 2012 election. These newly-drawn districts provide the Democrats with the potential to secure a two-thirds majority in both the Assembly and the Senate.

If this happens, the Legislature can pass whatever tax measures they want—without any Republican help—and send the bills to the governor for signing.

Brown, keeping to his campaign promise, can veto these bills and, with great fanfare, maintain he stills wants a vote of the people.

The Legislature can then simply override the governor’s veto, codify the legislation, and begin collecting the taxes.

See the rabbit? Or are you still looking at the hat?

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