Jerry Brown takes big risk with budget strategy

In Washington, D.C., they call it the “Washington Monument strategy,” on the belief that every time the National Park Service faces a budget cut, it reacts by threatening to close the revered obelisk.

California’s version usually involves popular police and fire services, but sometimes schools.

No politician ever threatens to cut welfare grants, health services for the poor or other programs that do not affect
middle-class voters. Instead, voters are told that their personal safety and/or their children’s futures would be at risk.

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown appears poised to ask voters to raise taxes next year, or at least continue some temporary taxes that will soon expire, or see vital public programs, such as schools, suffer irreparable harm.

Ever since his election last month, the once and future governor has been hinting that he will ask voters for additional state revenue to partially close a whopping budget deficit, now approaching $30 billion during the next 18 months.

As Brown staged the second of his public budget talk-fests Tuesday, this one at UCLA and devoted to education, his doomsday strategy became clearer — although one had to interpret his characteristically elliptical allegories to see it.

Brown said he will propose a budget in January that will be so shocking that those affected should read about it while sitting down, and he hopes to conclude a deal in the Legislature within 60 days.

That is clearly aimed at having a special election in May or June to give voters the choice of absorbing drastic cuts in education and other major state programs or reducing the impact, perhaps by half, by increasing taxes.

The education officials who spoke Tuesday made it clear they want more money, not more spending cuts. “We are off the cliff,” Bernie Rhinerson of San Diego Unified School District told Brown. “No more cuts at the K-12 level.”

If, as seems probable, Brown pursues a doomsday strategy, he is under no illusions that it will be easy. He pointed out, as he had done previously, that “there’s a lot of hostility to government” among voters, fueled by such things as the Bell municipal scandal and outrageously high public pensions.

Even before he could seek new taxes from voters, however, Brown would have to persuade his fellow Democrats in the Legislature to vote for a slash-and-burn budget. And that could be extraordinarily difficult, because Democrats would be feeling pressure from their political constituencies, such as public employee unions, and be facing uncertain re-elections in 2012 because of redrawn districts and a new “top-two” primary system.

Were Brown’s doomsday strategy to fall short, he would be stuck with an even worse budget mess and virtually no option other than following through with deep spending slashes in schools and other public services.

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