Saturday, June 18, 2011

Governor Moonbeam misses the mark


Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a budget that the Democratic-dominated (but not –controlled) State Legislature sent to his desk.  In justifying his veto, he suggested that the budget contained “legally questionable manoeuvres, costly borrowing and unrealistic savings”.  But the truth is, vetoing the budget was more about looking after Brown’s own political brand than it was about what’s best for California.

The Democrats’ budget wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t good.  In fact, in common with most budgets in recent years, it was damaging to schools, universities and other social services in our state.  And if Brown had opposed it based on serious principle—say because the budget made further cuts to our already-beleaguered education, social services and environmental sectors—with an eye to passing a more progressive budget, his actions might stand up to some scrutiny.

But in choosing to wield his veto because the budget was “politics as usual”, Brown is contributing to a mess of his own making and ignoring what will surely be the serious consequences of a more right-wing budget.

It wasn’t just Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly who were blindsided by Brown’s veto.  It was every single Californian who voted for him thinking they were getting a savvy pol who had a strategy for rescuing our state.  Brown betrayed every last Californian who voted for him thinking they were getting a progressive who was prepared to advocate for schools, universities, social services and the regulations that protect us from the excesses of dirty industries.  Brown, in aping the right wing of the Republican Party, is treating a budget as something more important than the livelihoods of Californians and the future of our state. 

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a move better designed to improve the bargaining position of the extremists who comprise the Republicans in the state legislature.  California’s Republican Party is eager to turn our state into a sick laboratory for the enactment of a social and economic program devoid of sympathy, responsibility and soul.  By suggesting that Democrats aren’t being harsh enough, Brown is giving comfort to the state Republican Party which is trying to enforce a spending cap that would cripple our ability to fund schools, universities and social services, mutilate the pensions of public employees, destroy organised labour and further hamper the state’s ability to raise revenue by rolling back tax rates.

Democrats have been repeatedly criticised for resorting to “creative accounting schemes” to pass budgets, this year as in the past.  And maybe their eleventh-hour budget was an effort to head off the halting of their pay that comes along with late budgets.  But this criticism ignores the fact that if they are going to do their job—representing and looking after their constituents—this is the only route open to them.  They cannot, thanks to the state’s continued reliance on minority rule to pass revenue increases, pass a balanced budget on their own.  And the only commitment Republicans have demonstrated is to dismantling our state’s social, educational and economic institutions. 

Our state is paying a high price for Brown’s misguided approach to California’s budget crisis, and his ill-judged campaign promise that under his (non) leadership, state finances would be decided from year to year by voters.

He is doing his best to sell his veto as an example of good leadership.  But Brown’s strategy is actually the antithesis of leadership.  He has no policy agenda, no set of moving principles, and he is proving that he is no friend to progressives.  He sold himself as the technocrat who would be able, thanks to decades of experience, to pass a balanced budget.  But Brown, bizarrely, underestimated the single-mindedness of the state Republican Party which, in its political obduracy (undeterred by the will of the majority of voters) and economic fundamentalism (undeterred by the catastrophic long-term consequences of their extremism), is bent on nothing less than the shredding of our state’s social fabric. 

Frankly, it is more important that we begin to come to grips with our failing education system, fund our universities which are the backbone of our state’s economy, reform our criminal justice structure, re-think our approach to property tax, and make our state’s democracy workable than it is to balance the budget in the way that Brown wants.  Because his version of the budget would be yet another exercise in short-termism, based, as it would be, on a referendum and temporary tax extensions.

For all his talk of making serious decisions and dealing with fundamental issues, Brown is taking a depressingly small-minded approach to his governorship.  And as usual, people who exist on the social and economic brink of our society are paying the highest price.

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