Monday, December 3, 2012

Jerry Brown: Running out of Excuses

Observers of California’s Incredible Shape-Shifting Governor, Jerry Brown, will be familiar with his mantra: Governing is hard, his ability to get things done is limited, and therefore we shouldn’t expect much from him. 

When pressed by progressives, or those interested in introducing rational government to a state plagued by structural dysfunction and a minority power which held, by default, the reins of government, Brown always fell back on some version of a reply he articulated to Marc Cooper of the Pacific Standard: “Yeah, I’d rather have a broader tax, there should be ways to have a more rational tax, but that is not viable.  It’s not going to pass the Legislature, it’s not going to pass by initiative.  It’s a non-starter”. 

In the same interview, Cooper asked Brown about Prop 13, noting that “some people say the state will never be fixed until Prop 13, which passed in 1978, is reformed.  We need a split roll, they say, that would raise tax on commercial property to see the revenue we need.  Are we going to see any proposals like that in another term?”  Brown’s reply? “I just don’t want to go there”, he grumbled, “I’m just not ready to recommend a split roll on Prop 13.  If you want a split roll, go organise your friends and put it on the ballot”. 

In those few words, we get the essence of Brown.  He gets elected promising to embrace concrete solutions to the state’s problems.  Then he whines about how hard and impractical and unpopular concrete, long-term solutions are.  Then he complains when people suggest that he do the job we elected him to do—that is, to govern—and suggests, petulantly and pathetically, that his interviewer should take up the reform or excision of Prop 13, since Brown himself has no interest in doing so.

But Brown, who has coasted for decades on a basic laziness and irresponsibility masked as a philosophy of non-intervention in the sphere of governance, is fast running out of excuses.  His party has captured supermajorities in the Assembly and legislature, they control every state-wide office, and his own belated stab at slapping a band-aid on the wound he helped to inflict on California’s public sector actually succeeded. 

Democratic leaders in the Senate and assembly have already been scrambling to lower expectations, and appeared to rule out tax increases (let it be remembered that Prop 30 didn’t provided more funding to schools and universities and other public services which have been ruthlessly cut in recent years, they merely arrested the slide temporarily, though the Governor was rightly criticised for overselling the measure).  The Senate leader is promoting an ungainly reform package addressed more to symptoms than underlying causes. 

But there are promising signs that not all progressives in the legislature are ready to continue forfeiting both power and responsibility.  The Chronicle reports that Senator Mark Leno is proposing to make increasing property taxes easier for specific purposes.  Senator Noreen Evans is making similar proposals.  Senator Ellen Corbett  interpreted Prop 30 as “a major signal to us...that voters have decided that they are willing to support education by paying some additional taxes”.  Asked by the Chronicle whether “that signal extends to new taxes beyond Prop 30, such as a tax directed at higher education, she said, ‘I think so’”. 

While the efforts of these Democrats represent firmer leadership and greater moral courage than ever demonstrated by the Governor, Brown sets a low bar, and I remain convinced that the character of these efforts are misplaced, and stem from learning the wrong lessons from Prop 30.

Many of us who supported that measure did so extremely grudgingly.  That reluctance was not due to the taxes which it levied but to the approach which it utilised.  Prop 30 was a step towards the further enshrinement of chaos, and represented a remarkable breakthrough for the cynical, opportunistic, buck-passing brand of politics practised with such skill by Jerry Brown.  The last thing we needed was another initiative which wrote tax details into the constitution.  The last thing we needed was the empowerment of our deranged system in which the relationship between the legislature, governor, and the second most powerful branch of government represented by the public through the initiative process (sorry, voters, first prize undoubtedly goes to monied interest in the state) remains unclarified. 

But these newly-empowered Democrats, in their reading of the tea leaves, have decided that the solution to California’s structural breakdown is a combination of piecemeal reform and tax increases which lock away more money for specific purposes, denying themselves flexibility when handling the state’s funds (if you’re not already clear as to why this is a bad idea, read Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It).  I’d love to see more money for both K-12 education and higher education.  However, locking that money into place based on a formula that makes sense in a particular year given one set of circumstances seems like a bad idea.  Moreover, it is unjust to future generations who should be able to ask their legislators to make decisions based upon the values of those voters in those times, and would perpetuate the same hubris enacted by an earlier government by their passage of Prop 13. 

What we need is for the activist legislators who don’t buy their leaders’ argument for inaction to ally themselves with the serious proponents of rational reform.  Proponents of democratic government should not rest until we have a more representative voting system and a realignment of direct and representative democracy.  And progressives should not be willing to sacrifice the opportunity to take action to better Californians’ lives. 

I predict that during the next two years, the foremost stumbling block for progressives in California will not be the Republican Party, as has been the case for the past decades when Republicans abused their minority status, but rather the Governor who, ever willing during the election season to castigate those who “talk California down”, is perfectly willing to do the same now: “‘Each night before going to bed’”, he recounted to the Bee, “‘I would say with the other meditators [in Japan], ‘Desires are endless.  I vow to cut them down’”.  Brown’s capacity for hypocrisy is as boundless as the fatuous praise hurled his direction by blinkered commentators who persist in seeing him as the “adult in the room”. 

It will not just be worldly desires that the Governor destroys through his pointlessly self-serving manoeuvres, but the public sector in our state, the sector which protects the health and welfare of citizens, educates and trains them, and provides the forum for debate and discussion about our common trajectory.  Brown’s contributions in the first two years of this, his latest governorship, have been paltry, and the signs for the next two years so far do not look promising. 

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