Jerry Brown's sad little speech

Even measured against the diminished expectations Gov. Jerry Brown has set, his 2011 State of the State message was a sad little speech.

Short on ideas, stripped of inspiration, and studded with clichés (“not a time for politics as usual”; “we owe it to ourselves and to our forebears—and to our children--to rise to this occasion”) the speech shoved everything else aside to dwell on what Brown called “Job Number 1,” the budget. By the time the speech limped to its conclusion, it had turned into Job All.

Brown’s explanation for his narrow focus? California is in fiscal crisis, “real and unprecedented.” But as Brown is old enough to know, the budget crunch is nothing new. It’s chronic. Ask Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who dealt with deficits of the same magnitude.

Better yet, look at Pete Wilson in 1991, who arrived to find a deficit of the same size, in percentage terms, as Brown inherited. In his first State of the State address Wilson acknowledged that California was in “heavy seas” and would have to cut the budget accordingly. He then went on to outline a program of “preventive” government to “give increasing attention and resources to the conditions that shape children’s lives.” Measured against Brown’s performance, Wilson today reads like Demosthenes and FDR rolled into one.

The saddest thing about Brown’s speech, though, was his attempt to turn his budget tactics into a matter of principle.

“Under our form of government, it would be unconscionable to tell the electors of this state that they have no right to decide whether it is better to extend current tax statutes another five years or chop another $12 billion out of schools, public safety, our universities and our system of caring for the most vulnerable,” he said in support of his call to put a tax extension measure to the voters this spring.

Even under California’s crazy system of government, there is no such right, of course. “The voters deserve to be heard,” he said. Didn’t they speak last November? Didn’t they elect Brown himself and put Democrats in control of the Legislature with an extra seat? In a representative democracy, aren’t such elections meant to establish the popular will?

The answers are yes*, yes*, and yes*. The asterisk means: not in California. Our state has a second form of government—its extensive system of supermajority vote rules and voter mandates on fiscal matters—that overrides the normal operation of democracy.

Everyone in Sacramento understands that the budget can be balanced only through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Voters know that. No one in the Legislature, including the Republican legislators who oppose the tax extension, is willing to vote for an all-cuts budget. But the current system of supermajority approval for taxes stands in the way of acting on what the voters decided in November. Republicans can block taxes without ever having to vote for the cuts that would inevitably result. It lets them be both irresponsible and unaccountable with little or no political risk.

The only reason to call a special election is to get around this broken system. For Brown, going to the voters is a matter of expedience, not principle. If he had truly wanted to be honest, and to help voters understand why California is in this mess, he would have said so.

Instead, California witnessed the spectacle of its newly elected governor, winner by 13 percentage points, begging the party that just got wiped out in November to let him hold a special election to ask voters to do the job that Brown and the Legislature just got elected to perform. That’s how California works now: First it makes men governor, then it makes them crawl.