When the results for Proposition 30 come in on Election Night, California voters won’t just have returned a verdict on whether they support raising taxes to reduce the state’s budget deficit. They will also have handed Governor Jerry Brown a victory or defeat on his signature policy issue. As Ben Adler reports from Sacramento, the outcome, and Brown’s reaction to it, could shape the rest of his time in the governor’s office.
Let’s start with a flashback – to the year 1978. The movie “Grease” came out, and a much younger California Governor Jerry Brown faced a striking rebuke when voters approved Proposition 13 in a landslide. Days later, the governor who campaigned so strongly against Prop 13 vowed to heed the message Californians sent to Sacramento.
“The message is that property tax must be sharply curtailed and that government spending – wherever it is – must be held in check. We must look forward to lean and frugal budgets. It’s a great challenge and we will meet it,” said Brown in 1978.
And he did, implementing Prop 13 so thoroughly that the measure’s author, Howard Jarvis, endorsed the governor for re-election later that year.
Nearly three-and-a-half decades later, Brown could soon find himself at a similar crossroads. The governor is once again is on the campaign trail over a statewide ballot measure.
“I want to pull my sign up in case anybody is watching. It’s Proposition 30. Please vote yes! Thank you,” said Brown.
But many analysts give the measure at best a 50/50 chance of passing. And just as taxpayers, schools and nearly every stakeholder group in the state have much at stake with Prop 30, so too does Jerry Brown – who, after all, has spent his entire return to the governor’s office building to this point. Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman.
“If it passes, it’s a tremendous victory for the governor. He acquires a lot of political capital – especially with a legislature that has about 40 new members coming into the Assembly,” says Stutzman.
And Brown could use that capital to advance the rest of his agenda – without quite so big a budget cloud hanging over Sacramento. Here’s his political advisor, Steve Glazer.
“There’s so many other things that he would like to put his time and attention to,” says Glazer.
Things like working on a new water system, for instance.
“But the foundation of it all is to have a balanced budget and fiscal stability,” says Glazer.
On the other hand, says Stutzman, “If the governor doesn’t win with Proposition 30, his political capital probably rapidly declines.”
The result could perhaps even lead to the two words every politician hates to hear: lame duck.
“He could almost move into a bit of an early lame duck status because he will have not been able to persuade the public to stay with him on what he says the solution is,” says Stutzman.
And not just voters. Last year, Brown tried to reach a budget deal with Republicans but those talks fell through with each side blaming the other. This year, it was Democrats who wouldn’t agree to some of the governor’s proposed pension changes. And Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio says Brown’s job wouldn’t get any easier with Prop 30’s failure.
“As far as his momentum if he loses, I think he’s in a very difficult place. Because he’s only going to have to make more unpopular decisions,” says Maviglio.
Like whether to hold firm on $6 billion in automatic budget cuts, or look for different cuts, or new revenues instead. Plus, it’s likely he’d have to make even deeper cuts next year. Still, Republican strategist Marty Wilson says don’t under-estimate what an experienced governor can do.
“I’ve worked for two governors – that’s a very powerful office. I mean, he’ll have plenty of heft. And he knows how to use it,” says Wilson.
Which is why we started this story with a look back at 1978 and the aftermath of Prop 13. The big question this year, if Prop 30 fails, is whether Brown would embrace the will of the voters or look for a way around them. In a recent interview with Capital Public Radio, the governor made his position clear.
“I will veto any bill that attempts to undo the trigger cuts. We have to balance our budget," said Brown.
Thanks largely to Brown’s track record 34 years ago, the consultants we spoke with for this story appear to believe him. But if Prop 30 fails, he would face pressure from school groups, teachers unions and lawmakers in both parties to find alternatives to eliminating three weeks of classes.