How Brown can save California

It's crazy to say that solving a $28 billion budget shortfall is easy, but a few basic changes could go a very long way to balancing the books


EDITORIAL There are two things Gov. Jerry Brown has to do to get California back on track, and he needs to start right away. He has to restore at least a degree of public faith in state government — and he has to put a series of tax increases on the June ballot.

The first step ought to be right in the Brown playbook. The public is fed up with the secrecy, lies, machinations, and policy failures of the Schwarzenegger administration, and Brown can start off by telling people the truth. The budget situation is frightening; it can't all be solved by cuts without destroying the state of California as we know it. But it also requires an understanding that the taxpayers don't want to see their money wasted.

Brown has done the right thing by offering to cut his own staff by 25 percent and by denouncing the demands of the highest-paid University of California staffers who want even larger pensions. He might also take a look at some of the outmoded, expensive commissions in the state (do we really need a 21-member California Film Commission?) None of these are big money-savers, and none address the budget crisis in any meaningful way. But they'll show that Brown's cautious with a buck.

Then he needs to tell the voters that the state does, indeed, have a revenue problem, not just a spending problem. And he should start right away with a blue-ribbon panel of tax experts to look at what reforms ought to go on the June ballot.

It's crazy to say that solving a $28 billion budget shortfall is easy, but a few basic changes could go a very long way to balancing the books. If the voters approve an oil severance tax (something every other oil-producing state in the nation has), an end to the commercial property loophole in Prop. 13, and the restoration of the vehicle license fee that Arnold Schwarzenegger abolished, the state would be about $10 billion richer. A modest increase in the income tax on the very richest Californians would add a few billion more. And suddenly the problem wouldn't look so insurmountable.

Brown has an advantage: he's taking over for a terribly unpopular governor. He will be able to work with a Legislature that now has the ability to pass a budget with a simple majority. And while his victory in November was hardly a landslide, it was substantial enough that he's got a valid mandate for change.

He and the legislative leaders should adopt a budget that includes the expected revenue from a June tax package — and then offer an alternative budget that doesn't. Give the voters a clear choice. Do they want to eliminate hundreds of public schools, raise elementary school class sizes to 40, shut down a couple of University of California campuses, shutter the state parks, and let 30,000 prisoners go free? Of do they want the oil companies and the richest Californians to pay a little bit more to keep the state functioning?

Brown can make history this spring. The passage of Prop. 13, during his last term as governor, set off a nationwide tax-cutting frenzy that's damaged the entire country. By pushing back just a little bit, and demanding a little bit of tax fairness, he can demonstrate that California is still a leader in progressive public policy.

He'll have to put his political capital, his credibility, and all the money he can raise behind the effort. If he doesn't, his administration, and the state, will be a total failure.

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