Can Gov. Brown Fix California?

Watching Jerry Brown’s low-key but curiously dramatic press conference on the state budget Jan. 10 reminded me that the central task of Democrats, once they are in power, is to prove that government can work. Without that, all great ideas about equality and justice go nowhere. A Democratic leader has to be able to sell his or her own base on the idea that government can’t do everything in order to have a chance to prove to the rest of the electorate that it can actually do quite a lot.

Today, with hatred of government running rampant and some being goaded into violence by reckless and irresponsible public figures, governing with reason is a hard but critical task. Furthermore, the federal government has largely abandoned the states to their own devices during this economic downturn. We’re basically on our own.

Brown’s budget plan begins with truly awful cuts in spending, totaling around $12 billion. The proposed cuts, which must be approved by the Legislature, include a half billion dollars each from the University of California and California State University systems, more than a billion from the Medi-Cal program for the poor, the elimination of the adult day care program, reductions of in-home supportive services, and halving of the CalWORKS program. He would also transfer a number of programs to counties.

Because voters passed Proposition 25 in November, approval of the budget now requires only a majority vote. Republicans cannot veto the budget. Thus, Brown was able to include cuts not only to programs dear to Democratic constituencies but also to business interests as well. He eliminates the state subsidy for local redevelopment and the entire enterprise zone program and removes a corporate tax break passed in 2009.

Brown wants the legislature to pass a spending plan by March, and he needs a two-thirds majority to place a measure on the June ballot to keep in place for the next five years the temporary tax increases that areabout to expire. If voters approve the ballot measure in June, the state will keep another $12 billion in revenue, and it will be able to avoid another round of devastating cuts.

Should the tax measure not reach the ballot or fail at the polls, the other shoe drops and public schools (K-12) and others will take a massive hit. Brown has to be credibly willing to carry out the cuts if the tax measure fails. But he has built in an incentive to Democratic constituencies to work extremely hard to get such a measure passed. Democrats do not want the draconian school cuts or other reductions to happen.

Brown has clearly set out the choice. If the tax measure fails, just multiply today’s cuts by two. For a politician once known for obscure, even Zen-like statements, he has made a surprisingly clear framing of the choice for voters who have been told for a decade that they really didn’t have to make any hard choices at all.

If all the pieces fall into place, Brown will have solved the budget problem for the foreseeable future, erased the image of California as dysfunctional and restored the belief that government can do its basic job. We will have an on-time budget. All he has to do is keep his own base on board and get a few Republicans to vote to put his tax plan on the ballot and then get the public to vote for the measure. He also will have to prove to deeply concerned local officials that the restructuring plan isn’t just a way to transfer dysfunction from Sacramento onto them or they will rally opposition. The state can’t do to the counties and cities what the feds are doing to the states.

So why should Republicans help Brown make government work when their philosophy is that it doesn’t and, indeed, shouldn’t? There is going to be great pressure on them not to vote to place the tax measure on the ballot. The anti-tax folks are already arguing that such a vote would violate their pledge not to raise taxes, even though it would be the voters making the decision. They are justifiably nervous that if the voters do approve the extension, we could see a real change in the assumption that taxes are politically toxic.

But Brown’s budget cuts are bound to get the Republicans’ attention in ways that haven’t happened before. Now that the budget can pass with a simple majority, Democrats can spread the pain around to Republican districts and interests instead of just poor people. Republicans may be able to negotiate a better deal with Brown in exchange for a tax measure that they think will lose at the polls anyway. They may also get some pushing from the Chambers of Commerce and other business interests that want the state to grow and can envision its bond rating improving. A proposed business tax change will advantage in-state over multi-state businesses, showing that business is not monolithic anyway. Business interests have not been immediately hostile to Brown’s plan. And Brown has been careful not to attack Republicans in his budget statements.

If the state budget is a metaphor for government, this is a very dramatic moment for California. Democrats have done a masterful job of winning elections, capped by their performance in a Republican-dominated year. But it will be in governing that the truly memorable work has to get done.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.