Should We Trust This Man With Our Kids?

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Would you trust a man who says he wants to protect your kids when he's also threatening them?

That's the problem at the heart of Gov. Jerry Brown's campaign for a temporary-tax hike measure.

In one breath, Brown and the measure's supporters say the measure is necessary to protect schools and kids  It's called the "Schools and Public Safety Protection Act" after all.

But in the next, Brown and the supporters are offering a threat to kids; the just-passed state budget championed by Brown is fashioned so that schools face a huge budget cut (and three weeks less of school) if the measure fails.

The overall message is thus at war with itself. Can you be a credible protector of schools at the same you're threatening them?

We'll see.

But by setting up this initiative as a hostage situation, with the schools as the hostages, is a high-risk strategy.

It's a campaign that needs fear to succeed. Voters are being asked to think: yes, I may not like this, but I want to prevent terrible things from happening.

Gov. Schwarzenegger used various versions of the fear argument in his ballot measure campaigns. Arnold, a master of understatement, warned explicitly of "Armageddon" more than once -- and lost much more than he won.

Given polling showing that voters are iffy on Brown's measure -- and opposed to the school trigger cuts that are the basis of the threat -- it's entirely feasible that the public response to the initiative will be to offer a double rejection of Brown. Voters may turn down his call for temporary taxes to protect schools, and of his threatened cuts.

Such a rejection could be politically crippling.

Or it might allow California to turn the page -- finally -- on this flawed Schwarzenegger-Brown budget strategy and embrace a more fundamental redesign of the budget and governance systems of the state instead.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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