Gov. Jerry Brown's worst-case scenario became reality this week. His ballot initiative to temporarily raise state sales and income taxes has come under attack not just by anti-tax conservatives but by wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger, who is bankrolling a competing tax plan. Munger's side argues that they had no choice because the pro-Proposition 30 campaign was misleading. But if Munger thinks she can persuade voters to approve her measure, Proposition 38, by increasing their cynicism about government, she's sadly mistaken. Instead, she's likely to doom both proposals, leading to draconian cuts to the programs she cares most about.
Both tax measures would raise billions of dollars each year, mostly from high-income Californians, and direct the funds mainly to public schools. Munger's would impose a larger tax increase and eventually steer more money to schools, but its passage wouldn't avert an immediate $6-billion cut to public education at all levels and other state priorities. Brown's would avert that cut, increase funding for schools and other programs such as community colleges, parks and human services, and would help the state close its chronic budget gap. That's why this page endorsed his proposal over hers.
Supporters of both measures started out by focusing on the money they'd raise for schools. Lately, however, Munger has gone negative, claiming in a new commercial that "politicians" could take the money that Brown's Proposition 30 steers to schools and funnel it to other programs. That's a sinister reading of how the budget process works in Sacramento. And besides, it disparages one of the best features of Proposition 30 — that the additional money would indirectly help other state programs too.
Munger's attacks dovetail with a flurry of ads financed by her brother, conservative activist Charles Munger Jr. Those commercials make the grossly misleading claim that Brown's measure wouldn't do anything for schools.
By amplifying the public's distrust of government, the Mungers' efforts will make voters more reluctant to pay more in taxes to anybody. That might fit Charles' agenda, but it only poisons the well for Molly's Proposition 38, which is trailing badly in the polls. If she doesn't shift her focus back to the benefits of providing more funding for schools, she may ensure that both tax measures are defeated, exposing schools to an immediate, multibillion-dollar cut. That ought to be her worst-case scenario.