Saturday, January 15, 2011





California has seen Jerry Brown the Roman Catholic seminarian and Jerry Brown the experimenter with Zen Buddhism and Jerry Brown the visionary (remember “small is beautiful” and the “era of limits?”). There have also been Jerry Brown the tough lawman and Jerry Brown the skilled political mechanic.

Now it’s time for Jerry Brown, salesman. If he’s not effective in that new role, millions of Californians will likely feel strong and unpleasant effects, even if they don’t believe it now. Before June, the governor must convince millions that a threat is both real and imminent, or else he’ll have to scrub his plan for pulling the state out of its seemingly perpetual budget morass.

That plan involves bunches of serious cuts to programs Californians love to use, from state parks to road building, home care to public health and education.

It also includes keeping active about $8.3 billion worth of “temporary” taxes passed by legislators two years ago. Keeping those taxes would slice the projected budget deficit from $28 billion over the next 18 months to less than $20 billion. The lower figure would still require major cuts to almost everything the state does.

It’s not an attractive product for anyone to sell, especially to voters who two years ago nixed extending these and other temporary tax hikes. They said no then because they didn’t really believe ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pitch, which was essentially the same as Brown’s is today: tax yourselves or you’ll lose things that are precious to you.

Voters figured other ways would turn up for solving the state’s deficit, and they did, for awhile. Things like taking money from local redevelopment agencies and pushing some payments into future years. But those gimmicks are no longer available, causing Brown to remark that “We’ve been living in fantasy land. It is much worse than I thought.”

Those remarks came as Brown began selling his plan last fall in two budget “summits” and his somber inaugural speech, where he described the scope of the mess he’s inherited without spelling out his solution. Now he’s done that, and the real sales job begins.

Partly because of his long experience and the fact that voters have been skeptical of him before, Brown knows a lot of Californians think the entire deficit is caused by a combination of illegal immigration and government waste and excess. These suspicions were no doubt furthered in late December, when 36 of the University of California’s highest-paid officials threatened to sue unless UC agrees to increase retirement benefits for them and other employees earning more than $245,000 per year.

(Question: How can these folks, including vice chancellors and deans of UC campuses, business, medical and law schools, plus department chairs and medical center CEOs, be smart enough to run the state’s elite public university when they’re so tone-deaf they can’t understand their move will alienate millions of ordinary Californians?)

There’s also the “free lunch” ethos prevalent in California for decades, in which voters believe that no matter how much they cut taxes, no matter how many new taxes they reject, state government will always somehow find enough money to continue all services.

That, of course, is fantasy, and Brown says he’s determined to substitute honesty for fantasy. “At this stage of my life, I did not come here to engage in delay and denial,” he said both immediately after his election and in his inaugural speech.

Brown concedes there’s waste, and pledged in his inaugural to “get after it” right away. But he said in one of his budget meetings that “it’s nowhere near on (the needed) scale.” And there are studies indicating illegal immigrants are a break-even proposition, paying enough sales, gasoline and other taxes to cover costs they generate. So going after those two areas won’t solve the problem. Not even close.

Which means Brown must change the beliefs and tendencies of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of voters if he’s to stave off defeat for whatever special election tax proposition he runs.

Can he do it?

Schwarzenegger failed abjectly when he tried the same thing two years ago, and he had been a masterful pitchman for years previous. But Schwarzenegger – after promising to “blow up boxes” and eliminate waste – proved to be a master of hypocrisy and budgetary gimmickry, most of his threats turning out to be mere bluster.

Brown so far appears the very opposite. Maybe good salesmanship this year will have to involve his kind of simplicity. If Brown can’t pull it off, all Californians will find out just how draconian the cuts will be in the budgetary Plan B he’s vowed to carry out if voters refuse to extend the temporary taxes. For he knows there really is no free lunch.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

No comments:

Post a Comment