Last week Californians were treated to the sorry spectacle of our Governor, Jerry Brown, carting boxes of signatures to the Registrar of Voters’ office. The signatures are those required to get his tax measure on November’s ballot. Brown’s box-carrying was, of course, a staged move—his underlings could have done it for him. But it illustrates the degraded state of our politics. Our legislators and chief executive have so little discretion—even when the Governor and overwhelming majorities of the two legislative houses come from the same party and are in basic agreement—where our budget is concerned, and so little power to set policy that they are reduced to scrambling around the state (or in this case paying other people to do the scrambling) for signatures. Not to raise taxes, but to get an initiative which would do so on the ballot—an initiative which stands a fair chance of being rejected by California’s obscenely indecisive voters.
As reported by the Sacramento Bee, Brown declared, “With this tax measure, and with the cuts that I’ll be proposing on Monday, California will put itself in a very, very strong position”. This is patently dishonest. We will be in a very uncertain and dangerous footing until such a time as voters pass his measure, and will thereafter remain in a very shaky position. The only certainty will be that in a few years’ time we will be scrambling to repeat this process of cobbling together a makeshift, temporary solution.
The tax measure might allow us to consolidate funding for education and other social services that have been violently slashed in the past few years, but we will be consolidating in a weakened state and will remain incapable of the kind of investment necessary for the health of our state. Our schools will remain squeezed, our research universities will continue their march towards breaking with the state, and the future of our public provisions and institutions (state parks, welfare, healthcare, affordable housing, libraries, poverty reduction) will remain in doubt, and inequality will continue to grow.
Brown is also asking for cuts to the pay of state workers. If we were in genuinely dire economic straits, it would make sense to ask everyone to take a hit. But we’re not. Our budget deficit is a crisis manufactured by a broken political system. How do we know this? Because all of the sacrifices have so far been borne by middle- and low-income as well as young Californians. They’re the ones who suffer from cuts to our safety net, and to our schools and universities. Unlike the wealthy and the upper-middle classes, they have no recourse to a pay-to-play private system. Nobody at the top has been asked to make a serious sacrifice. And we will continue to bear the burden so long as the wealthy, corporate interests, and the state Republican Party keep tax rates low for large industries, keep loopholes open for corporations and the wealthy, and ensure that nobody reaches into the works of our state politics to touch the spanner that is Prop 13 (which instituted minority rule in the state and at the same time introduced an absurdly undifferentiated system of property tax).
According to the Bee, Brown and Molly Munger, who has her own tax initiative on the ballot (focussed primarily on getting funds for schools), haven’t ruled out cooperating. But whatever they decide, both initiatives will feature on Californians’ November ballots, creating confusion that would have been totally unnecessary a) had Brown got his act together and either not given his daft anti-tax pledge, or got an initiative on last November’s ballot; b) had he and Munger negotiated properly before the signatures were due; c) had Munger set her ego aside and joined the Governor’s effort, which is now backed by a majority of the state’s unions; d) had either party embraced a more comprehensive effort to overhaul our state’s broken system of governance. Brown and Munger should share the blame. One can only conclude that Munger was driven by her ego rather than commonsense when she persisted in placing her measure on the ballot even after Brown came to an agreement with the two large teachers’ unions in the state. Hers are not the actions of someone with the welfare of our state’s children at heart. But Brown is the Governor, and he’s supposed to have the prescience to head off unnecessary crises like this, and the leadership qualities to bring all the parties to the table to reach some kind of agreement.
It is not only in terms of the specific cuts to education, healthcare, parks and other social provisions that California will be impoverished (for these cuts will lead to an increasing gap in wealth and access to basic services). The state’s capacity for social or infrastructural innovation will also remain hamstrung. If we admit that ours is at root a democratic rather than a budgetary crisis, we have to recognise that Brown’s budget and tax measure will change nothing. Indeed, it might signal a new and dangerous trend.
Given our failure to reform our system of governance, Brown’s approach—abdicating his responsibilities and asking voters to decide on tax measures—could become the norm, particularly if his measure passes. There is, in the electoral arithmetic used by politicians, a decided advantage to passing the buck and not having to be held responsible for tax increases. Spineless Democrats can join Republicans in signing pledges, taking oaths, and crippling our state. There are undoubtedly short-term electoral benefits to be had by indulging and even encouraging voters in their own social irresponsibility. But this is a truly ridiculous way to govern, and would introduce an even greater degree of uncertainty into the lives of Californians.
If Brown ‘succeeds’ in November, we might see the formal introduction of disorder as an instrument of government into our state. If Proposition 13 was the legacy of the Governor’s failure to act decisively from his first two terms, the total abdication of responsibility for making moral calls might be the legacy of his second go-round.