Brown's Bad Tax Medicine

Gov. Jerry Brown must have been born under a lucky moon.

Because the mostly positive coverage that his tax initiative has received is totally divorced from the content of the measure.

Brown and others have made two core arguments for a tax initiative. The money is necessary to balance the budget. And the money is necessary to make sure we invent enough in the long term in schools and local government, the core of government services.

The trouble with the initiative is: as written, it can't accomplish either goal.

1. Budget.

Balancing the budget is difficult because so many formulas and special mandates and accounts give lawmakers little discretion, and have the effective of ratcheting down revenues while ratcheting up spending.

But Brown's initiative reates more of these budget-breaking whips and chains. It puts the tax money into special accounts that the legislature can't touch.

This isn't the cure. This is more of the budget disease.

2. On revenues for schools and local government, the tax initiative provides funds -- but not for the long term.

In fact, the initiative makes the tax increases temporary -- they expire in five years.

This puts the lie to the notion -- still given credibility by much of the California media -- that Brown is honestly reckoning with the state's long-term budget problem.

He's not. At best, he's pushing the problem five years into the future, when he would be 79 years old and finishing up his second term.

There are all kinds of political reasons for doing this. A temporary tax is easier to sell than a permanent tax increase. Voters like education and public safety (the core local government function) and worry that tax increases will go to programs they find less important. The logic of Brown and Democratic supporters of this is: the state needs the revenues and this is what we need to do to get them.

But in pursuing temporary taxes now, they are imposing more long-term costs on Californians.

The future budget system will be even more broken -- and, after five years, just as starved of taxes. And we will have wasted five years -- and considerable capital, both financial and political -- that we should have spent on fixing the system itself.

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