Jerry Brown’s ransom note

Is the governor’s 2012 agenda as simple as passing his ballot initiative—or else?

Gov. Jerry Brown, hostage-taker?

Gov. Jerry Brown, hostage-taker?

It’s not easy to read Gov. Jerry Brown.

But reading the spines of some of the many books crowding the shelves of his gubernatorial conference room offer a sense of where he’s coming from.

Religion, urban planning, history, architecture, philosophy, drama, psychology and art all are represented. The 1961 Cal classics major has to have Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a compendium of Sophocles’ plays, and a pocket-sized edition of the works of Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher. It’s no surprise the former seminarian has a copy of The Confessions of St. Augustine and John Cassian’s Conferences, in which the saint discusses using ascetic practices to effect union with God.

There’s the 1964 book that introduced Sufism to the West, Hubert Benoit on Zen, The Way of Chuang Tzu, Bhagvad Gita and a tome on aikido, the “peaceful” Shinto-centered martial art that, because of its defensive nature, can be practiced to a late age. A biography of the Democratic governor’s father, Pat Brown, is near several volumes of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan books.

Brown the younger’s quirkiness sometimes suggests he might have bitten into a button or two back in the day, clambering up the long ladder to higher consciousness.

Sadly, figuring out where Brown is going—or at least what constitutes his primary goal for the second year of his third four-year turn in the Capitol wheelhouse—is far more prosaic reading. Try the budget.

Brown’s game plan is all right there. There’s talk of creating a state water plan. Pension scalebacks. Making real the miracle of realignment (shifting more state responsibilities to counties). Going greener. Some deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic bureaucracy reshuffling and renaming. But that’s strictly B-team stuff.

All are trumped by the real Magilla, which is laid out so nakedly, several folks describe it as a “ransom note”—except the letters aren’t cut out of myriad magazines.

“The governor has to pass a ballot initiative this year. Everything else is secondary,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Everything he does between now and November is going to be either directly or indirectly about laying the groundwork for that initiative.”

Brown’s initiative would raise taxes on Californians making more than $250,000 each year and families making $500,000 or more. All Californians would be forced to pay a half-cent more in sales tax. The higher rates would be in place from the 2012 tax year through the end of 2016, and raise about $7 billion each year.

Here’s the ransom note: Brown’s budget assumes voters increase their taxes. So Brown’s spending blueprint says he would cut $4.2 billion—half from reduced health care and aid to the state’s poor—and use the new tax money to fill most of the remainder of the $9.2 billion budget hole he predicts will accrue if he and the Legislature circle-jerk between now and June 30, 2013.

If voters don’t do the right thing this November, Brown says a massive fiscal shit boulder will roll down on the heads of the state’s 6.2 million public-school children, in the form of $4.8 billion in direct cuts, not counting the 20 percent of the money the state is supposed to pay schools each year that is already postponed as part of an elaborate budgetary shell game. Nor is any of the $14 billion or so schools have been shorted over the past few years going to be repaid.

Brown’s budget says this magnitude of a reduction is the equivalent of losing three weeks of instructional time. That may be true, but lessening—or lengthening—the school year is negotiated between teachers and management, so while the cuts would certainly be harmful, they won’t automatically lead to shorter school years. Scare tactics?

But wait, there’s more badness if no new taxes, Brown says. University of California and California State University systems will each take $200 million hits. Two words: tuition hikes.

Bambi, Thumper and the rest of the Golden State’s flora and fauna will be imperiled by slashing the number of wardens and park rangers. And, the cruelest cut: No more lifeguards on state beaches. Ahoy, maties, pass the tax increase or little Johnny goes glub-glub-glub down into Insurance Commissioner Davey Jones’ locker.

Says California Republican Party chairman Tom Del Beccaro: “This cynical, scare-tactic budget strategy … hinges on the hope that voters will ignore their own financial problems to bail out the Democrats with another ill-advised tax increase.” No kidding, Tom.

Asked by hard-hitting reporters last week if he thought his either-this-steamer-or-that-far-fouler-dungheap stratagem would convince voters, Brown said:

“This is all we can do! These are the cuts in the budget I’m proposing, and these are the taxes. That’s it. I’m not trying to kid anybody, I’m just saying this is the best I can do. [Voters] got to agree, and if they don’t, we’ll deal with that when it happens.”

Brown counts his chief accomplishment last year as reining in the state’s fiscal mess. Last year’s shortfall was $26.6 billion; this year’s is one-third the size. That’s good, but less spending means more pain—at least for many Californians, usually those tottering on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Brown promises more of the same this year.

Even if voters agree to tax themselves more in November, Brown still proposes more than $4 billion in cuts, half falling on welfare recipients and those receiving care through Medi-Cal, the state’s health program for the poor. Some suggest that harshness is part of Brown’s message to voters: demonstrating the dire austerity required even with additional revenue.

“The governor’s priority is to right California’s fiscal ship so California can move forward and prosper,” said Frank Mecca, executive director of the California Welfare Directors Association. “He’s sincere about that, and he cares about low-income people, but plunging tens of thousands of children deeper and deeper into poverty absolutely guarantees you won’t be able to right California’s fiscal ship.”

From the start, the Democratic governor has tried to deal himself the best hand possible for November. He’s trying to convince other groups with proposed tax increases to get off his November ballot and give him a clear shot. Everything about his initiative, starting with its name, is designed to entice voters. The Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012 increases the tax burden on the only group voters support raising taxes on—folks richer than themselves—and purports to spend it on the only stuff voters say is worth the investment—schools and public safety.

To win, Brown needs the financial support of both business and labor. He is already attempting to raise money from both, which means he’ll be playing footsie with the 1 percenters.

At two recent press conferences, Brown mentioned how more drilling permits were now being issued by the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. Oil companies have complained bitterly, both publicly and privately to Brown, about the backlog of applications the division has failed to process over the past several years. Brown fired the director of the division in November.

Why would be bring that up—twice—apropos of nothing? Who is he talking to?

The problem with such a sky-high stakes political gambit is that Brown may find himself in the same situation as Cleavon Little, the sheriff in Blazing Saddles, holding a gun to his own bald pate and warning Californians: “One more move and the guv-doggy gets it.”