SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown still has not settled on a central sales pitch for his tax-hike initiative, even though support is shaky and election day is fast approaching.
He has said at turns that Proposition 30 is about fixing Sacramento, supporting local schools and creating jobs. At recent campaign stops, he has said the measure would help stabilize the state budget — even though ads in favor of it say the billions of dollars in new taxes will flow only to schools and cannot be touched by Sacramento politicians.
On the stump, Brown emphasizes that most of the tax increases will affect only the wealthiest Californians. The campaign ads make little mention of that.
The mixed messages underscore the Democratic governor’s struggle to persuade skeptical taxpayers to open their wallets and provide fodder for a well-financed opposition to plant doubt among voters. A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed support for the proposal slipping below 50% for the first time.
The shifting “creates uncertainty and makes voters head in the ‘no’ direction,” said John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at USC.
Californians have not approved a statewide tax increase since 2004, when they voted for a levy on those making more than $1 million to pay for expanded county mental health programs.
Brown has acknowledged the difficulty of selling new levies to voters, saying his campaign made a strategic decision not to mention the word “taxes” in its ads.
“It’s hard to find the right phrases, the right words,” Brown said, speaking to reporters after a San Francisco campaign event last week. “Everybody’s so afraid to mention that taxes are even involved. We walk on eggshells.”
From the outset, Brown had pitched his initiative as part of what he called a “balanced approach” to closing the state’s budget gap. He had already cut billions of dollars from government programs.
With polls showing that voters were most likely to approve taxes to help schools, he said the new levies on sales and upper incomes would help him balance California’s books, stave off education reductions and fulfill his campaign pledge to restore fiscal sanity to Sacramento.
As he traveled the state to promote his plan in the spring, he hammered home that point. “My goal is to balance the budget,” the governor said repeatedly.
He cast his initiative as “far superior” to a separate tax measure by civil rights attorney Molly Munger because that proposal, Proposition 38, would send most of its new revenue to schools but would not fill the budget hole.
By summer, Brown had changed tactics.
Rocked by a financial scandal at the parks department and ill-timed legislative pay raises, the governor co-opted Munger’s education message — and even mimicked her advertising, which vilified Sacramento and focused on government accountability. He aired television spots featuring teachers who argued that the new money would go directly to classrooms.
Another ad stars the state controller, an elected official, asserting that “Sacramento politicians can’t touch the money.”
But the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has said “future actions of the Legislature and the governor would determine the use of these funds.”
Some political analysts said the campaign ads tarnished the governor’s reputation as an honest broker in the polarized Capitol.
“Brown’s credibility was the most precious commodity that campaign had, and they’ve degraded it,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant who helped former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger craft messages for a series of ballot measures in 2005.
Brown’s opponents have seized on the contradictions, airing ads that cast Proposition 30 as “just another misleading budget gimmick by Sacramento politicians.” And since most of the governor’s ads do not mention where the new money would come from, anti-tax activists are filling the vacuum, focusing on the quarter-cent hike in the state sales tax.
“Prop. 30 makes our sales tax the highest in the nation,” says one opposition ad, featuring a mother at a kitchen counter. “A billion dollars more a year for gasoline, clothes, things we buy every day.”
Some of Brown’s allies lament that he has failed to capitalize on the most politically potent part of the initiative: The new income taxes would fall on individuals making more than $250,000 a year or couples earning more than $500,000. That message could help reverse flagging support from Democrats, more than a third of whom say they’re undecided or won’t vote for the measure, according to the latest USC Dornsife/Times poll.
“People who are in the top 2% can afford to pay a bit more. We think it’s really a powerful message,” said Rick Jacobs, chairman of the Courage Campaign, a liberal advocacy group that backed the idea of a “millionaire” tax before abandoning that plan in an agreement with Brown. “The campaign has made another choice.”