Opinion: Can Democrats govern California?

Facing the likelihood of conflicting tax initiatives on the November ballot, Gov. Jerry Brown last week reached agreement with the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) on a compromise, unified measure. While the CFT’s “millionaire’s tax” had polled well, the union agreed with Brown to propose instead a tax increase on high earners, a slightly smaller sales tax increase than in the governor’s proposal, and to set a time limit for the new rules of seven years instead of the CFT’s open-ended plan. Now that the threat of competing tax measures on the ballot may have been averted (although Molly Munger’s broad-based tax proposal still remains on the ballot, despite polling poorly), the question remains whether the tight timeline on getting enough signatures to place the initiative on the ballot can be met.

Further, this moment of unity is only the beginning of a perilous road for the state’s Democrats from here to November. Political observers often ask, “Is California governable?” A better question right now is, “Can Democrats govern California?” Because despite numerous governance obstacles, that is largely who is in charge.

California has gone from being a divided (“purple”) state to a solidly blue one. In 2008, Barack Obama won California by a margin of more than 3 million votes. Even in the heavily Republican wave of 2010, Jerry Brown won the governorship by 1.3 million votes.

Between Obama’s election in 2008 and early 2012, Democratic registration rose from 42.7 percent to 43.6 percent; Republican rolls dropped from 33.5 percent to 30.4 percent. And the changes are geographically widespread. Among California’s 58 counties, those with Democratic pluralities increased from 23 to 28, while Republican-leading counties declined, from 35 to 30.

And for the Republicans, the bottom may not yet have been reached — a recent Los Angeles Times article suggested that Democrats have new potential in the historically Republican Inland Empire. No one is even mentioning Republican candidates for governor for 2014, while there are already three major Democratic contenders angling for position. Democrats may win a two-thirds majority in the state Senate in November.

As Democrats celebrate their entrenched position, capping a run that began with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 and continued with the vast rise of Latino voting in the decades of the 1990s along with a resurgent and enthusiastic labor movement, we cannot avoid the deeper and more profound question posed above: Can Democrats govern the state?

The problem comes down to revenue: Voters passed a simple majority budget rule in 2010, facilitating the first on-time budget in years. But the two-thirds majority of the legislature needed to pass tax measures that became enshrined in the state constitution with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 remains. And until that two-thirds majority rule on new taxes is overturned by voters, governing will be a tough slog for Democrats.

As weak as the Republicans are in California today, due in part to their party’s hard-line stance on immigration, they will revive if Democrats drop the ball.

Republicans are not without “weapons of the weak,” a term developed by professor James C. Scott in another context. Unity in the Republican legislative caucus against tax increases, bolstered by the two-thirds requirement, has already forced Democrats onto the risky and uncertain path of ballot-box budgeting. Republicans’ recent embrace of Brown’s pension-reform plan showed a long-absent nimbleness placing Democratic legislators on the defensive.

Like President Obama, Gov. Jerry Brown spent (or wasted) time trying to convert Republicans to support tax increases. Brown learned more quickly than Obama that Republicans could not help him, not because they didn’t like or respect him personally (and even if he adopted some Republican ideas), but because of the internal dynamics of their own party. While social issues divide Republican voters, opposition to taxes unifies them. That, and not personality or intimidation, is why Grover Norquist has so much clout.

Business, however, is one piece of the Republican coalition that can sometimes act independently. While low taxation is the mantra for Republican voters, fighting regulation is the key for business. The Republicans’ ties with business can be tenuous and in need of care, as the Democrats no longer count on the uncritical support of labor (the CFT battle with Brown being one recent example). The state’s Chamber of Commerce quietly signaled non-opposition to Brown’s original plan, so now that Brown reached a deal with the CFT, he will be trying to keep business from opposing the compromise measure.

Brown has work to do to get this compromise measure on the November ballot. But the real battle will be in November, with Brown’s and the Democrats’ credibility to govern this blue state on the line.

That will be painfully hard, as the Democratic Party, both in California and nationally, is still fighting an uphill battle against Ronald Reagan’s famous line: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Can Democrats revive the notion that public investment in California is of true value, as last articulated by Jerry Brown’s father, Pat? A lot has happened since the elder Brown’s day to undermine faith in that vision, and it will not be easy for Democrats to restore a philosophy promoted in an earlier, more optimistic time. But they will have to try.

If Democrats fail on the budget, their work will be without purpose except to implement draconian cuts that will further undermine the performance of government. Recent polls by the Field Organization and the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) indicate overwhelming public opposition to across-the-board cuts to the schools. Who will be blamed if the inevitable cuts happen? Nobody’s going to be looking for Grover Norquist.

The most recent PPIC poll found that the governor’s proposal, which closely resembles the compromise measure, is supported by only 52 percent of voters, with 40 percent opposed and 8 percent undecided. It is winnable, but not easy. The presidential election, with Obama’s name on the top of the ballot, will help generate a Democratic turnout, and that base is generally supportive of the tax measures. But it will take more to get the majority of voters needed to get the initiative passed. No matter how blue the state, taxes are never popular.

Much will depend on the perceived value of the programs California has built and that are jeopardized by budget catastrophe, such as the historic university system. As Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton recently wrote, voters will also want to know that the government plans to become more efficient. They want to know where the new money would go — assurances that it will not be down a rat hole. To promise that will require reform. It may mean embracing efficiency recommendations, including some steps that will annoy Democratic interest groups.

When the public sector works well, as it often does, its advocates have to energetically and without apology shout those successes from the rooftops. When it falls short, its supporters need to be the first on the scene to fix the problem. The positive impact of the work of government (your tax dollars at work), as well as a willingness to ride herd on that government, both have to be proven all over again, every single day. The ascendant Democrats must put those two strategies in place in order to go beyond winning elections to turning the state around.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.