Robert Cruickshank Op-Ed: Reacting to Brown’s Budget

by Robert Cruickshank, California Progress Report

Governor Jerry Brown released his budget plan. It’s no
surprise that Brown is mixing cuts and revenues, but the overall thing
has an air of disappointment to it, particularly the fact that he
proposes to extend the February 2009 taxes and not seek more fundamental
reforms, such as restoring the Wilson-era upper income tax brackets or
seeking an oil severance tax.

Brown also is proposing some ugly cuts, and is suggesting these may
be permanent. The social services cuts resemble those that Arnold
Schwarzenegger frequently proposed, although Brown is thankfully not
suggesting anything like eliminating CalWORKS, as Arnold did. The
proposed cuts drew concern from Jean Ross, executive director of the
California Budget Project:

However, the Governor also proposes deep cuts that
will weaken the public structures that many Californians rely on,
including CalWORKs, the state’s highly successful welfare-to-work
program; state- assisted child care for families struggling to make ends
meet; Medi-Cal, a state-federal health insurance program; and the
Healthy Families Program, which helps families purchase affordable
health coverage for their children.

Protecting our core public systems and structures is essential
for securing a prosperous future and paving the way for an economic
recovery. Lawmakers and voters should examine the Governor’s proposals
in the context of what they mean not just for the next 12 months, but
also five, 10, and 20 years in the future.

Ross did praise Brown for adopting a "balanced" approach to the
budget, seeing new revenues as a core element of the solution instead of
as a small and grudging concession, as did Arnold Schwarzenegger,
fueled as he was by an ideologically anti-tax attitude. But the proposed
cuts will have lasting negative consequences that will be devastating
to the safety net, and therefore, to the ability to produce lasting and
sustainable economic recovery.

It’s regrettable, but not surprising, that Brown still sees value in
austerity, even if it’s to be balanced out by some new revenues. The
Brown Administration projects a possible $3 billion surplus by 2013-14
if the revenue increases are approved, and while that might be a pathway
to restoring some of the cuts, he’s much more likely to want to hoard
it (which would be as stupid an idea as it was in the late ’70s) or to
use it to pay down debt.

The shift of money and responsibility to counties will be very, very
interesting and has to be watched closely to ensure this doesn’t become a
license to red counties to misuse the money and screw people who need
services. And the fight over the redevelopment agencies will be a
massive battle, as they have well-funded allies who won’t go down
quietly.

Still, it seems worth mounting a fight for the new revenues anyway,
especially if they are presented to voters in a "clean" form, not
weighed down by right-wing trojan horses as was Prop 1A in May 2009.

Governor Brown’s political instincts have never been radical. He has
always believed in taking the electorate as it was (or at least as he
thought it was), instead of trying to move voters toward a new political
understanding. In that way he shares a lot with President Obama, who
also counsels Democrats to accept a supposed reality of a center-right
electorate and to be content with incremental gains.

There’s no doubt that much in Brown’s budget has the potential to
dramatically reshape California government, and to help provide some
stability to public services. At the same time, Brown has again shown
his cautious and conservative (in the sense of being unwilling to rock
the boat) instincts with this budget. In the end, I have to agree with
those who have called Brown’s budget a missed opportunity.

It’s better than what we’d have gotten with Meg Whitman, of course,
but it shows progressives that they still have work to do in order to
reshape the discussion of programs and revenues in Sacramento, even as
we work to get voter approval for the spring initiatives.