Jerry Brown playing game of chicken

We’re about to witness a new twist on Sacramento’s annual high-stakes budget game. Many Capitol observers believe that incoming Gov. Jerry Brown and his fellow Democrats, who no longer need GOP budget support thanks to the Nov. 2 passage of an initiative (Proposition 25) that allows a budget to pass with a simple majority rather than a supermajority, are looking to pass a balanced budget that includes deep cuts to public services.

Then Brown will, as the prediction goes, take a slate of initiatives to voters that will propose raising various taxes. The new governor, who already has begun setting the stage for tough choices given the state’s enduring $25 billion-plus 18-month deficit, will be saying to voters, “You better pony up additional billions of dollars in taxes or watch public services get slashed and burned.”

This is a “doomsday strategy,” according to Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who views it as a risky plan. What happens, he asks, if the state’s voters — notorious for opposing tax increases with the same vigor for which they oppose program cuts — decide to nix the tax hikes? Will Brown and Co. then make good on their program-cutting threats?

Even if the budget machinations do not proceed as predicted, there’s little doubt the state’s voters eventually will be asked to choose between significant program cuts or significant tax hikes. The governor-elect has said that “kick the can” budget gimmickry can’t work much longer. His summits are designed to highlight the need for drastic budget action. It’s only a matter of time before we, the California voters, have to choose among bad choices. Then it’s our fault, you see.

It’s a brilliant, albeit cynical, political strategy that just might work. But it is based on the dishonest premise that the current government is cut to the bone. There is a real, third alternative to further cuts or taxes: increasing the efficiency of the way current services are provided.

“The governor needs to add a third [or perhaps fourth]voter option to his false ‘either-or’ choice,” explains Richard Rider, chairman of the San Diego Tax Fighters association. It’s not just less services or more taxes — the issue he’s dodging is how best to deliver desired public services.” As Rider notes, the state needs to embrace competitive bidding and privatization and rein in the salaries and benefits it pays to current public employees.

He’s exactly right. You can’t tell me, for instance, that $200,000 pensions for 50-year-old retired fire chiefs help improve the level of fire services for the public. Don’t expect any real reform from the incoming administration. Instead, Brown has chosen a game of budgetary chicken. But eventually all games have to come to an end. We can see the writing on the wall from across the globe. Russia is firing more than 100,000 government employees over the next three years. Ireland announced that it is slashing its budget by 20 percent. Ditto for Great Britain. Even Cuba is slashing 1 million state jobs.

If Cuba’s worker’s paradise will do it, so can California’s retirees’ paradise. It’s only a matter of time.

Steven Greenhut is editor of www.calwatchdog.com; write to him at sgreenhut@calwatchdog.com.

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