Gov. Jerry Brown’s muddled message hasn’t helped Prop. 30’s chances

Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown may still pull out a victory for his beleaguered tax measure. Then he can tell all us kibitzers to go eat a big Thanksgiving plate of crow.

Polls show “yes” votes in the high 40s with the “no” side in the low 40s. Ordinarily that’s trouble, especially for a tax increase, because uncertain voters tend to settle on “no.” But most undecided people in this case are women, and women tend to support Brown’s measure.

So it’s still a tossup.

I’ll be voting for Proposition 30. That’s because although it’s bad policy to worsen the state’s tax instability by leaning even more heavily on the rich, a “no” vote means yanking $5.4 billion from K-12 schools and community colleges, plus $500 million from public universities. And that’s unconscionable.


There’s a lot of fantasy about Brown bluffing. I don’t believe it.

Asked recently by reporter John Myers of News10/KXTV in Sacramento whether he would seek legislative repeal of the education cuts that were agreed upon in case Prop. 30 failed, the governor asserted: “I’m not going down that road. There’s only ‘yes,’ we get the money, or ‘no,’ we have the trigger cuts. It’s that simple.”

Anyway, even if they wanted to, I doubt the governor’s and Legislature’s abilities to compromise and ride to the schools’ rescue during this academic year.

It makes sense, then, to vote against wealthy political neophyte Molly Munger’s rival income tax proposal, Prop. 38. It doesn’t stand a prayer. But even if it did pass and attract more votes than Brown’s measure, the education cuts still would have to be made. Her taxes wouldn’t take effect in time to prevent a shortening of the current school year.

If Prop. 30 triumphs, it will be a remarkable feat for Brown. He’ll draw kudos, not kibitzers.

But for the life of me — and I’m echoing the sentiments of innumerable pundits and pols, Democrats and Republicans — I couldn’t begin to cite much that Brown & Co. have done to sell Prop. 30.

There hasn’t been a consistent, coherent message to voters about why they should back the measure, which would temporarily boost income taxes for single-filers earning more than $250,000 and couples making more than $500,000. There’d also be a tiny quarter-cent sales tax hike.


Start with those details, which were designed to provide the campaign with a populist “soak the rich” argument it has failed to really use.

You don’t hear in TV ads that only 1% of income tax filers, according to the legislative analyst, would pay the higher rates. Neither is there an effort to put the puny sales tax increase in perspective.

That’s because Brown and his strategists fear the “T” word.

“Everybody’s so afraid to mention that taxes are even involved,” Brown conceded to reporters last week. “We walk on eggshells.”

Psst to campaign: Voters are onto the taxes. They need an honest explanation for them.

Brown did start out calling Prop. 30 a “millionaires’ tax.” But he backed off when the news media noted it didn’t just affect million-dollar earners.

He has been all over the lot.

The governor claimed for a long time that the $6 billion in higher taxes would go “100%” to schools. That may have tested well in focus groups, but it was untrue. Most of the money would be used for budget-balancing.

But nearly 47% — or $2.8 billion — legally must go to K-12 schools and community colleges under a complex Prop. 98 formula. Brown isn’t making that point, however. He’s allowing opponents to get away with a fib that Prop. 30 “doesn’t guarantee one penny of new funding for schools.”


Some of Prop. 30’s TV ads state the baloney that the new money “can’t be touched by Sacramento politicians.” The legislative analyst debunks that claim in the official voters’ guide: “Future actions of the Legislature and the governor would determine the use of these funds.”

“You can take a little poetic license in politics, but when you completely mischaracterize something, that’s a problem,” says Democratic consultant Garry South, who was former Gov. Gray Davis’ chief strategist.

“And you can’t keep changing the message on something like this every other week.”

GOP consultant Rob Stutzman, a key advisor for Republican Meg Whitman when she ran against Brown for governor in 2010, says the Prop. 30 effort “needed to rely on Brown’s leadership and credibility as an honest broker. But they destroyed that right out of the gate....

“Brown needed to pick up where the governor’s race left off.”

That means Brown should have recast himself as the wise old pol “with insider’s knowledge, but an outsider’s mind” — someone with “the knowledge and the know-how to get California working again.” That’s what he offered in announcing his candidacy.

Stutzman and many pros suggest that Brown, in pitching Prop. 30, should have looked straight into the camera and said something like this:

“You elected me to fix Sacramento. Here’s my progress report. We’ve cut spending by $12 billion, over 11%. We’ve trimmed payroll and we’ve reformed pensions. We’ve cut to the bone. Now I’m asking for your help.


“I told you there’d be no tax increase without a vote of the people. So here’s your choice: Higher taxes on the most wealthy or even more severe cuts that would critically wound public education. Please. We need to put this behind us once and for all.”

But Brown’s message has been mushy and muddled.

If Prop. 30 does pass, credit the voters’ parental instincts and ability to see through the clutter.

Regardless, I plan to be eating turkey on Thanksgiving.