Jerry Brown’s Risky Path: How to Raise Taxes in California
On a sunny February morning at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Jerry Brown’s cup of black coffee was getting cold. When a concerned waitress in the club restaurant poured him a fresh cup and offered to clear the original one, the governor of California declined. “That’s alright. I’ll drink both of them,” he said in a deep, raspy voice. “We don’t want to waste it.”
Brown has never been one to waste. He’s earned a reputation for austerity ever since his first term as governor in 1975, when he famously turned down living in the governor’s mansion and rode in a dull Plymouth Satellite instead of the Cadillac limousine designated for the office. He was a famously busy bachelor, dating among others the singer Linda Ronstadt. Many things have changed since then. He’s been married since 2005. He’s held several other elected offices in California. He’s lost his full head of hair and he no longer has his sights set on becoming President of the United States.
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Now back in the governor’s mansion, he’s spent much of his time trying to preserve as much revenue as he can amid massive state budget cuts, and is pulling out all the stops to fix California’s chronic budget deficit. As President Obama takes the issue of tax increases to the national stage, Brown’s latest efforts may make the most populous state in the Union a bellwether for fiscal policy in the rest of the nation.
To fix California’s mess, Brown is embarking on what is normally one of the riskiest undertakings a politician can assume: he wants to ask voters in November to approve a plan to increase the state’s sales tax and its income tax on wealthy individuals in order to generate more revenue for schools and other services. In California, the situation is dire. The coffers in Sacramento are so empty that the public services that helped make California the ninth largest economy in the world are in severe jeopardy of going underfunded — or worse, shut down.
The hemorrhaging has gotten so painful that Brown has apparently gained an advantage in his crusade: more than two-thirds of voters actually favor his tax proposal, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. In an hourlong interview over scrambled eggs and hash browns, the governor explains why. “You can [choose to] not eat a day,” says Brown. “You can go a second day. You can go a long time. At some point you have to start eating. At some point people don’t want to close their schools. We can’t continue to reduce firefighters policemen, teachers, nurses, and water inspectors. It’s just simple. Most normal people will come to that conclusion.” Brown drove that point home in his budget proposal: should voters reject his tax initiative, funding for schools will be slashed by $4.8 billion, equivalent to the cost of three weeks of instruction.