He didn’t tweet a photo of his “package” to an unsuspecting woman, but California Governor Jerry Brown's veto of the state’s budget did much worse harm to Democrats and the public by setting the stage for massive education and public service cuts. Thus far, Brown’s action has provoked little public outrage. Activists have been focused on local and national budget debates, and statewide advocacy groups do not want to appear to support the cuts made in the budget Brown vetoed. But the anger is coming. After failing to get the Republican votes necessary to extend tax increases, Brown now intends to reward the GOP through an all cuts budget rather than minimizing cuts this year and obtaining additional revenue through November 2012 ballot measures. Brown likes being seen as fiscally prudent, but it’s the state’s working families and low-income residents who will pay the steepest price.
California Governor Jerry Brown thought he could persuade at least two Republicans from the Assembly and Senate to support a special election to extend expiring tax increases. He failed. Now he appears willing to give Republicans the all cuts budget they have sought, despite its punishing Democrats and the constituencies they represent.
What the Budget Veto Means
Here’s what California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski said about the budget prior to Brown’s veto:
“It’s a profound shame that as a result of Republicans blocking a fair budget, California families are left exposed by budget uncertainty that could lead to more cuts to schools, public safety and other important services down the line. This budget is the only current viable solution to prevent massive, immediate cuts that would crater our economy for years to come. We urge the governor to sign this budget so that we can move forward as a state and start building for a better a future.” (Emphasis added)
Every Democrat but San Francisco’s Leland Yee held their nose and voted for the budget because, as Pulaski noted, it was “the only current viable solution to prevent massive, immediate cuts.” Republicans opposed the budget because Democrats refused to cave in to GOP demands for widespread changes to state government in exchange for their votes (I send an email last week to Yee’s press aide Adam Keigwin inquiring about Yee’s alternative budget strategy, but got no response. Yee’s budget message noted that he opposed cuts to redevelopment agencies “which is just another cut to our schools and our classrooms cannot afford.” In truth, redevelopment diverts millions of dollars from schools, which is why the California Teachers Association and all other Democrats supported the RDA budget cuts).
Brown never implied, suggested, or hinted to fellow Democrats that he would veto their budget. And to add insult to injury he claimed that the budget included “legally questionable maneuvers, costly borrowing and unrealistic savings, and was “not financeable and therefore will not allow us to meet our obligations as they occur.”
Brown took a shiv to all of the Democrats who took politically courageous votes in favor of a difficult budget. He also handed an enormous public relations victory to oppositional Republicans without getting anything in return.
Former Governor Gray Davis had a problem dealing with Democratic legislators, but Brown makes Davis look like a real team player.
Democrats now have two options. Neither includes persuading Republicans to extend tax increases, a fruitless goal that Brown continues to pursue (Since President Obama did the same thing in trying to get Republicans to back health reform; there apparently is something about Democratic leaders that lets them believe they can persuade right-wing conservatives to see things their way.)
The first option is to sit back, watch Brown unsuccessfully lobby Republican legislators, and then observe the Governor make the type of draconian cuts that Democratic legislators refused to accept under Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The better strategy is for Democrats to mobilize to force Brown to accept a budget not that different from the one he vetoed (it has to be different enough so that Brown can claim this version is financeable, but that can occur without additional cuts). For many constituencies this means getting in the face of a politician they saw as an ally, a strategy progressive groups have been reluctant to perform.
It also means that education groups would have to fight for a budget that includes education cuts, though far less draconian than with an “all-cuts” budget. That can be a hard sell to members, and requires significant political education in a short amount of time.
But if groups think their members are mad about the cuts in the Democrats budget, wait until they see what Jerry Brown’s “no gimmicks” budget has in store. That will get people wondering what was so wrong about pushing the deficit down the road until tax increases can be approved in 2012---after all, Democrats did more to balance the budget in 2011 than the Republican Schwarzenegger Administration did in seven years.
Brown Reverts to his Past
Jerry Brown came into office with a track record of poor working relationships with legislators, but seemed to be accepting a more collaborative approach with his Democratic colleagues this year. But appearances proved deceiving.
Brown never cared much about Democratic legislators in his first go-round as governor, and has now isolated himself from fellow Democrats after less than six months in office. He could regain some trust by signing bills that Democrats strongly back (like the UFW’s Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act, SB 104), but it is not even clear that Brown cares about maintaining positive legislative relations.
By vetoing the budget without a more progressive alternative, Jerry Brown now owns the all-cuts budget. And if activists allow him to pursue this course without protest, we too are to blame.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.