Gov. Brown’s democracy dodge
It would be “unconscionable,” according to Gov. Jerry Brown, for the Legislature to “block a vote of the people” on a five-year extension of the 2009 tax increases due to expire in June. “It is time for a legislative check-in with the people of California,” he said in his State of the State address.
Commentators have denounced Republican legislators for refusing to lead, follow or get out of the referendum’s way. The GOP position — the people do not need to vote again on tax hikes they rejected two years ago — is “rubbish,” they say. The “Party of No” must abandon its “indefensible position that voters should have no say in decisions that will affect each and every one of us.” Republican legislators who “stonewall” Brown’s plebiscite forfeit the right to collect their salaries since, “in a just world, the pay for doing nothing — and keeping anyone else from doing anything — would be nothing.”
The rebuttal of this indictment begins by noting that if Brown really believes that more democracy is a moral imperative and more taxes are a practical necessity, he had a year’s worth of opportunities during his gubernatorial campaign to vindicate both propositions. He could have laid before the voters in 2010 the argument he has made repeatedly since his inauguration in January: The expiration of the recent car, sales and income tax increases would force intolerable governmental cutbacks. A governor elected on the basis of that straightforward campaign promise would have ample democratic justification to press for a budget that blends spending cuts and tax increases.
But that was not the campaign Brown chose to run. Instead, he refused to be pinned down on what he would do about California’s budget. His only tangible promise on the issue was that he would raise taxes only with voter approval. The politician described by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter in 1992 as a “chameleon” and “first-class cynic” campaigned for governor by assuring voters he had the courage of their convictions — whatever those turned out to be.
His November victory does not render Brown’s campaign promise binding on anyone other than himself. He won his election, and the Republicans categorically opposed to tax increases won theirs.
California Democrats could have been small-d democrats by defeating enough of those anti-tax Republicans in 2010 to enact their legislative program without any GOP votes. Or, they could have persuaded the people to overturn the requirement that two-thirds of both legislative chambers approve any tax increase. Because Democrats didn’t win or wouldn’t wage those political battles, however, they have no leverage — practical or moral — when berating Republicans for not helping implement the Democratic agenda.
The Republicans’ critics accuse them of being nihilists not only about procedure, for opposing the tax referendum, but also regarding policy substance. The GOP insists on a balanced state budget without tax increases despite allegedly knowing that no such approach is “politically sustainable.”
That proposition isn’t so clear either. U.S. Census Bureau tables show total spending, per capita, by state and local governments was 19% higher in California than in the rest of the country in 1992, and 25% higher in 2008.
If per capita governmental outlays, adjusted for inflation, had grown during those 16 years by 17.2%, as they did in the rest of the country, rather than 22.6%, as they did here, spending would have been $18.5 billion lower in 2007-08. If California’s spending over those 16 years had increased at half the actual rate, 11.3%, rather than 22.6%, governmental outlays would have been $47 billion lower, nearly twice the budget gap the state is now trying to close.
What do these spending increases say about the heartless, savage, draconian budget cuts Republicans have in mind? That 20 years ago California managed to educate its children, imprison its criminals, maintain its roads and assist the indigent — and did all this with inflation and population-adjusted government outlays about one-fifth smaller than what they were recently. Republicans are pushing back against the notion that anything the rest of America can do, California must do more expensively. Californians would be well served by a concerted effort to figure out how efficiencies practiced elsewhere can be implemented here.
Such insights are unlikely to come from the leaders of the 15 special-purpose districts in California paying their top executives salaries exceeding $300,000. Nor can we count on much help from the 36 University of California administrators threatening to sue if UC calculates their pensions on the first $245,000 of their salary, rather than on their total salaries, which are tens of thousands of dollars above that level.
The position of one of the 36, summarized by the San Francisco Chronicle, is that unless UC grants the pension increment, likely to cost $5.5 million a year, it “will have trouble attracting good people.” That was, in essence, Robert Rizzo’s defense of his $787,000 salary as city manager of Bell: “If that’s a number people choke on, maybe I’m in the wrong business. I could go into private business and make that money.”
Better guidance comes from pension reform activists, whose recommendations include freezing pensions for all state and local workers; denying pension and health benefits to retirees 64 or younger (54 for police officers and firefighters); prohibiting the payment of retirement benefits to employees drawing a paycheck from a different government job; and capping pensions for new public employees at the state’s median household income.
When the governor demands a statewide referendum on those kinds of proposals, it will be easier to believe he’s serious about democracy.
William Voegeli, a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, is the author of “Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State” and a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Salvatori Center.
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