Jerry Brown's Risky Crusade: How to Raise Taxes in California

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Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Governor Jerry Brown of California leaves the State Assembly after delivering his State of the State address at the Capitol in Sacramento on Jan. 18, 2012

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There's perhaps no better candidate than Brown to reverse these trends. First, he has the experience. He has been governor, secretary of state of California, chairman of the state's Democratic Party, state attorney general, mayor of Oakland, as well as a three-time presidential candidate. The son of former Governor Pat Brown, he grew up around politics. Secondly, his age helps. The septuagenarian Brown is no longer aspiring to higher office, which gives him more time and energy to focus on fixing the state. He was known as a fiscal conservative in his previous turns as governor as well, cutting spending to build up a large budget surplus in his first term. Brown then spent much of those savings to bail out local governments after California passed Proposition 13, which reduced property taxes.

For his third term as governor, he has rarely traveled outside the state. Compare that with his younger years when he often ran for President while serving in Sacramento. "He used to look out from his office and see Washington, and now he looks and sees Capitol Park," says press secretary Gil Duran, referring to the park in California's capital. "He's not looking for support in some huge future campaign."

According to Chiang, the state's chief fiscal officer, Brown delves into the technical aspects of the state's finances more than his predecessor and doesn't rely heavily on his staff to figure out the details. "A lot of fixing California's fiscal condition depends on a technical understanding of what's happening in the markets, what's happening in the economy," Chiang says. "And Governor Brown asks great questions. He's always inquisitive. He's probing."

Asked if his prior experience as governor gives him more tools to run the state's finances than he had before, Brown snaps back with his characteristic sarcasm. "How is eating breakfast different this time than last time? I don't know," he says. He then shies away from calling himself wiser, saying it "sounds very fat-headed and arrogant." But he does confess that the tax proposal he came up with was "informed by 50 years of being in and around politics." "With that added knowledge, which hopefully will translate to some wisdom, you probably will have a better grasp of things," Brown admits. "I definitely see things more clearly. I understand the process, the need for longer term planning, the need for alliances, the need to be careful."

All of this would seem to contribute to a no-nonsense attitude that may help finally get things done in California. "I propose cuts and temporary taxes," Brown said in his State of the State speech this year. "Neither is popular but both must be done." Already, through agonizing cuts and a slowly improving economy, Brown has cut the shortfall to $9 billion from the estimated $26 billion he faced when he took office. In a bid to close the gap further, he tried last year to get the legislature to put a measure on a ballot to extend tax cuts, but Republican legislators blocked the effort. So now he's going directly to the people.

Ironically, it looks like the voters won't be his greatest challenge. What might normally be the greatest obstacle — opposition from across the aisle or adverse public opinion — isn't as much of a threat to the proposal as are Brown's own allies. The California Federation of Teachers is putting forward its own ballot initiative, dubbed the "millionaires tax," which would increase income taxes on those earning more than $1 million. Molly Munger, a wealthy Southern California attorney, is also pushing an initiative to raise income taxes to fund schools. Brown's initiative differs because it includes other sources of revenue than just income taxes, like the increased sales tax for all Californians. Neither the union nor Munger has heeded Brown's calls to step down. He says a ballot with multiple tax initiatives will lead the electorate to either reject them all or divide their votes, which might rob Brown's of the support it needs to pass. The irony of it all, says Brown, is that the sponsors of the other plans probably voted for him to get elected. "Like Gaul, it's divided into three parts," the erudite Brown says, referring to Julius Caesar's The Gallic Wars. "How was Gaul pacified? By a very strong general. Unfortunately, I don't have the Roman legions at my command."

Brown has been strategic in his approach to this conundrum, and that may have dictated his tactics at the California Democratic Convention in San Diego this month. In his speech to a roomful of supporters holding posters that read, "We're with Jerry," he only mentioned the plan in passing and gave no details. "We've got to pass a tax measure and we've got a few issues there. You'll get your marching orders," he said. The governor then reportedly rushed off to a fundraising lunch for well-heeled supporters of his initiative. In a sign of the challenge Brown faces, there were more people outside the convention gathering signatures for the union's proposal than for the governor's. And there were plenty of convention goers wearing stickers promoting the millionaires tax. "The working people don't need to be taxed," said Angelica Godinez, a supporter of the millionaires tax who attended the convention. "The wealthy need to be taxed. They're not paying their fair share."

Ultimately, Brown says he wants to fix the state's fiscal mess in order to show California is still an economic, cultural and creative leader of the nation. To borrow from his State of the State speech, he wants to ensure California "is still the land of dreams." But at 73, why take on the challenge himself? Why is he facing off against rogue allies when most people his age are retired? When asked, he doesn't say this term is about his legacy. He just gives a bullet point list of policy items he wants to get done. The deficit "is a big problem," he says. "It's serious for the schools." Brown says no backroom deals were in the works — at least not yet — to persuade his ballot opponents to step aside. And if his plan isn't approved in November, he says he'll keep trying, perhaps through a special election. "I think were going to be successful," he says. "But I can't tell you how long it's going to take."

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