California, as we know, is awfully complex, with a Gross Domestic Product eclipsing that of all but seven world nations and a culture lurching ahead of perhaps all formal political entities. That said, I think Californians’ reaction to Governor Jerry Brown’s Jan. 10 budget plan should be simple: Embrace it as a refreshingly candid and savvy starting point for reform.
The most immediate challenge falls to voters in state districts represented by Republicans. They need to press their elected representatives to drop their party’s antidemocratic and ultimately self-defeating opposition to permitting the special election Brown wants to hold in June to seek voters’ input on whether the state should prolong tax hikes. Last week, for instance, Senate GOP leader Bob Dutton predicted that “zero” members of his house would approve the special election because we shouldn’t “do anything different than we have done before.”
Dutton’s insistence that things must never be “different” may seem bizarre on its face, but is based on a cold political calculation that unless state GOP leaders oppose Brown now, they’ll be run roughshod over by him later.*
The GOP, however, has far more to gain by challenging the details of Brown’s budget than by flexing knee-jerk opposition to direct democracy.
And that budget—while light years above its predecessors in candor—is hardly perfect.
The budget’s glitches and political punting aren’t hard to spot, but these two struck me as especially glaring:
- Pension Reform. Brown’s new budget does next to nothing to rein in the costs of California state employee retirement and benefit programs, which cost $6.2 billion in 2010 and constitute nearly one-third of the state’s budget deficit. In my last California Forward blog, I pointed out that while Brown’s opponent Meg Whitman proposed replacing the state’s “defined benefit plan” for new hires with a less costly “defined contribution” plan, Brown dodged the issue. He’s still dodging, offering state GOP leaders a legitimate political bone to pick, should they ever wake up to reality. The governor deserves some slack here because, like the leader of any democracy, he must endeavor to do not only what is fair and farsighted, but what is feasible. And it’s an understatement to say that pension reform is both legally and politically complex.
- Prison Reform. As I noted in my last CA Fwd blog, California’s Department of Corrections has one of the highest “recidivism” or repeat offense rates in the nation, and its prison system is to my eyes the state agency least able to do what California Forward’s Fred Keeley calls “outcome-based budgeting.” Also known as “management by objective,” such budgeting requires public agencies to publicly disclose how they will use taxpayer money to accomplish given outcomes, which in the CDC’s case would include reducing crime. Unfortunately, rather than addressing the fact that the CDC’s consumption of the state’s general fund has grown from just 4 percent in 1994 to nearly 11 percent today, Brown’s new budget, to the delight of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association that supported him during the campaign, not only fails to trim prison spending; it increases the agency’s budget by $395.2 million to “fully fund the salary and wages” of CCPOA members while adding another $298 million for “various” prison costs.
My quibbles above are just two of many that can and have been raised about Brown’s budget plan. But unless I’m missing something very big, I never heard Gov. Brown present his plan as perfect. His standard response to all is something like “if you have a better idea then let me hear it.”
As Brown has often said of his latest gig in Sacramento, “At this stage of my life, I’ve not come here to embrace delay and denial.” After reading not only over his budget plan, but looking into his eyes, I can’t find any reason whatsoever to doubt the sincerity of his convictions.
*The GOP’s calculation goes something like this: While Brown needs some GOP votes to call a special election in June (because such referenda must be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature), he won’t need GOP approval for later budgetary measures because a recently enacted law allows such bills to be passed by a simple majority vote.
Alex Raksin, editorial director of the social media firm Creative-Connectors.org, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.