Former Gov. Pete Wilson pulled a Jerry Brown?

Former Gov. Wilson faced a huge deficit, so did Gov. Reagan. They took a different approach than today’s GOP legislators.

Conservative heroes like Pete Wilson and Ronald Reagan hiked taxes immediately upon becoming governor. Democrat Jerry Brown won’t find it so easy.

Conservative heroes like Pete Wilson and Ronald Reagan hiked taxes immediately upon becoming governor. Democrat Jerry Brown won’t find it so easy.

Go to for more information on Educate Our State’s “Let Us Vote!” campaign.

When Pete Wilson took the governor’s office in 1991, he also took on a $14 billion budget deficit—at the time the largest budget shortfall in the state’s history.

A nasty fight followed, between the Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature. But in the summer of that year, Wilson signed a budget that split the deficit burden equally between cuts and tax hikes. About $7 billion was slashed from state programs, and about $7 billion in additional revenue came from tax increases—including higher income taxes on the wealthy.

As per the state constitution, this could only be accomplished with two-thirds support of the state Legislature. Wilson got the votes, just barely, thanks to help from several Republicans who found new taxes distasteful but who voted with Democrats anyway, in order to close the gap. As it turned out, the state economy came back pretty strong after that, and remained strong throughout the rest of the 1990s. Ronald Reagan likewise hiked taxes by $1 billion upon taking the governor’s office in 1967.

When Jerry Brown came into office this year, he inherited a $25 billion budget deficit. It’s not quite the deepest hole the California has been in, but in some ways it’s worse, because the deficits have just kept coming, year after year, grinding away at the state.

Brown has proposed a budget that is about half cuts and half new revenue. This includes deep cuts to CalWORKs and other welfare programs, reductions in higher education and elimination of local redevelopment agencies.

The revenue part of Brown’s plan would extend a 1 cent sales tax, as well as some temporary increases on income taxes and vehicle license fees while also ending certain corporate tax breaks and tax breaks for businesses in enterprise zones.

But this time, the prospects for a bipartisan compromise look bleak.

“The Republicans are not even going to entertain a discussion about new revenue,” said Jann Taber, media director for the Senate Republican Caucus.

Taber says her boss, Sen. Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga, first wants to see Democrats pass all the cuts that Brown is proposing. Then, rather than put tax increases on the ballot, the GOP wants to see a special election on several Republican-backed reforms—like cuts to state pensions, regulatory reform, hard spending caps and changes to California civil-service rules.

“You get the cuts passed, get the reforms on the ballot, then we’ll see where we’re at,” Taber told SN&R.

It’s a long list of demands for a political party so short on representation in the state house.

“But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, what about Section (10)c of Article II of the California Constitution? Could that help?”

Photo by Lilly Fuentes Joy

But thanks to the constitutional restrictions on raising taxes (put in place by Proposition 13, back when Brown was governor the first time), the GOP has just enough power to say no. No to new taxes, no, even, to allowing a vote of the people. Taber said Dutton “does not believe it’s going to fix the problem.”

“He cannot in good conscience vote to put it on the ballot.”

Still, it appears Californians would rather vote their own conscience. In January, a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that two-thirds of Californians think the plan should at least go to a vote in the special election. By comparison, just 54 percent approved of the plan to extend tax increases.

And there are the beginnings of a grassroots campaign to end the GOP blockade.

“We want a chance to vote on this budget,” said Linda Shaffer with Educate Our State, a parent organization formed last year to try to protect and expand school funding and education reforms. “If this budget doesn’t get passed, it’s going to be an all cuts budget,” which will likely mean much bigger reductions in school spending—possibly $5 billion in cuts.

Shaffer says the group’s “Let Us Vote!” effort has so far generated about 20,000 letters to California lawmakers, and the group is targeting moderate Republicans in particular. Democrats and their supporters are also expected to ramp up the let-the-people-vote rhetoric over the coming days. But if that campaign falls short, is Brown’s draconian plan B the only option?

Maybe not. There has been some discussion inside the Capitol of a legal end run around the stubborn Republican minority. One legislative staffer told SN&R, “It’s in the bag of tricks. But nobody wants to go there.”

It’s a little arcane, but the state constitution does allow lawmakers to write amendments to laws previously approved by voters—and then to put those changes on the ballot with a simple-majority vote. This happens pretty frequently, in fact. Proposition 15, which would have provided for public financing of certain statewide elections, was just a set of amendments to Proposition 9, the Political Reform Act passed by voters in 1974.

“Some suggest that this section of the constitution also could be used to put on the ballot proposed amendments to prior tax-related statutory initiatives via a majority vote,” said Jason Sisney, with the California Legislative Analyst’s Office. And last week the legislative counsel in a letter to Sen. Dutton also confirmed this possible alternative path to the ballot.

“We conclude that the Legislature may submit such a proposal to the voters by a majority vote of each house,” the lawyers wrote.

“This would probably be controversial for some,” Sisney told SN&R. Controversial is putting it mildly. Republicans would howl, and the maneuver might appear sneaky to voters as well.

“It would be clever. But I think it would just be asking for court challenges,” said Eric McGhee with the PPIC.

Likewise, there’s been some discussion of whether Proposition 25, the majority-vote budget initiative approved by voters last year, might offer some relief. Proposition 25 allows the lawmakers to pass a budget with a simple-majority vote, but it does nothing to change the rules about raising taxes. “It’s unclear,” said Mark Hedlund, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. “There could be a way to do it with a simple-majority vote.”

Still, he was clear that his boss thinks a two-thirds vote is the way to go. Trying one of these majority maneuvers “would be problematic.” He added, “There’s no effort to explore that further.”