Jerry Brown, Recycler… of Budget Strategies

Riya Bhattacharjee

Jerry Brown got some attention last week when, in an interview with the Northern California radio station KGO, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee quipped that he had forgotten what day of the week it is. The overcaffeinated Meg Whitman rapid-response team quickly piled on, suggesting that the 72-year-old was forgetting things.

Given the surpassing vapidity of the campaign, it's a wonder Brown can tell the weeks apart. I can't. No, Brown's problem isn't knowing what day of the week it is. His problem is that he doesn't seem to have learned from the recent past.

In a lesser noticed part of that same KGO interview, Brown was asked to describe how the budget should be balanced now by the state's leaders. His answer?

"Look, they've got to make the cuts. They've got to find, whatever they can do. Move functions in local government, find some fees ... talk to Obama, get some more bailout. Their back is to the wall, and the reason is they didn't make the hard decisions in January or February when they could have gone to the voters to ask to be relieved of certain constitutional mandates or to let the voters vote on some choices about what they want or don't want in state and local government."

So let's review, the Brown budget strategy involves 1. making cuts where you can. 2. trying to find some fees or revenues. 3. move functions in local government. 4. talk to Obama and the feds about getting more money. 5. and asking the people to excuse the legisalture from certain mandates.

Why didn' the legislature and governor think of any of those things?

Oh, that's right. They did think of those things. In fact the legislature and governor have tried all those things over the past two years. None of them worked. To review:

The legislature and governor have made tens of billions dollars in cuts to the budget over the past two years. They're about to make more. So that takes care of Brown suggestion #1. They also raised fees (#2) and found some revenues by raising taxes temporarily in a February 2009 budget deal. That same deal shuffled around some money from local government; state leaders this week also delayed some local government payments to conserve cash (Jerry idea #3).

And, if Brown hasn't noticed, legislative leaders and the governor have been making near constant demands for more money from the federal government (That's Brown idea #4). And finally, in 2009, the legislature and governor went to voters asking for their permission to "be relieved of certain constitutional mandates" (Brown idea #5) so they re-do the budget process and get at money reserved for education, the lottery, mental health and early childhood in order to balance the budget. The voters said no, and in the process overturned key parts of a legislative deal (and blew a $6 billion hole in the budget. Yes, the enemy is us).

None of this worked. Why? Because California's governing system doesn't work. The budget process is such a mess of spending mandates and tax limits that it simply doesn't work. To balance the budget requires not just revenue and spending tactics by lawmakers (as Brown suggests) but wholesale changes in the budget process and in the constituion.

But Brown has pointedly opposed the kind of systemic reform that's needed. Instead, he seems inclined to repeat what hasn't worked.

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