Jerry Brown is doomed.
That's one way to read his new budget to eliminate the $25 billion deficit with equal parts spending cuts (primarily social services) and tax increases. The governor wants voters to reimpose on themselves for five more years the 2009 tax hikes – the same taxes they overwhelmingly refused to extend for two years. Mindful of that outcome, Brown has embraced blackmail: Renew the tax hikes, or school spending will be slashed.
Brown's budget is a doomed half-measure that confirms he is a conventional liberal. The spending cuts are significant but insufficient, and in the unlikely event voters renew the tax hikes, the damage to our anemic economy virtually guarantees the promised revenue won't materialize.
A recent study of how governments cope with deep deficits and debt found those that successfully restored their fiscal house employed budget solutions consisting, on average, of 85 percent spending cuts (including 22 percent from government wages and salaries). The typical failed solutions were 50-50 tax hikes and spending cuts – Jerry Brown's formula.
Most revealing is what the budget doesn't do: tackle the pension time bomb and the bloated state payroll. Given the magnitude of our chronic deficits, the state payroll should be rolled back to at least 2000 levels, yet Brown's budget merely extends Schwarzenegger-era pay cuts to a few segments of the state work force.
Why target welfare recipients instead of state employees? Welfare recipients don't have a union. Public employee unions spent $40 million on Brown's behalf, and they expect a return on their investment. On his first day in office, Brown replaced seven pro-charter school reformers on the State Board of Education with status quo educrats – including the lobbyist for the state teachers union.
The hard truth is restoring California's fiscal health requires dramatically downsizing the number of state employees and their unsustainable pensions and benefits. That would require Brown to turn on the public employee unions that elected him – an act of political audacity that would make Nixon going to China seem like a Sunday school picnic.
Thus the horns of Brown's dilemma: His present course will produce continued economic stagnation and budget deficits, and impatient voters will toss him out in four years. On the other hand, taking on the unions guarantees a political Armageddon that would sunder the California Democratic Party.
Hence the opportunity for prostrate California Republicans. It used to be that "As California goes, so goes the nation," but the state now looks more like a lagging political indicator than a leading one. We're just entering what the rest of country went through in 2009-10: an era of complete liberal Democratic dominance. There were no Republican fingerprints on President Barack Obama's Great Leap Leftward, and American voters responded by handing the GOP historically huge gains. If Brown maintains his present course he'll be more unpopular than during the Rose Bird recall and spark a similar backlash.
Granted, Brown took office amid a mess – but one in large measure the handiwork of the government unions that put him in office. His budget doesn't go far enough to stop California's slouch to insolvency. The further cuts will send union members into the streets, earning Brown their hostility but no offsetting credit with voters. Brown will never be re-elected if he allows California to become even a shadow of Greece. He is doomed unless he breaks the power of the government unions.
In 2012, the budget will still be in the red. Overregulation and over taxation will keep the economy feeble, unemployment high and state revenue down. Public perception of government employee unions is at an all-time low. States like Mississippi and Wisconsin are demolishing the myth of Brown's "green economy" by using tax incentives to lure solar manufacturing and jobs out of California. There'll be no Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to tarnish the GOP brand. The lowered budget threshold allows Democrats to enact radioactive budgets without a single Republican vote. Brown and the Democrats will be solely responsible for the state of the state.
Assembly and Senate Republicans have already stated that no GOP legislator will vote to put Brown's tax hikes before the voters – which will force Brown to cut more deeply. If unified Republicans present voters with principled alternatives, they'll be in a position to gain seats thanks to an honest redistricting. And as long as Brown avoids the necessary steps to restoring economic prosperity and government solvency, it is Republicans' sober duty to do everything they can to ensure this is Brown's last fling in politics.