Lessons from California for New Britain, Hartford and Washington

Elected officials  at all levels can learn something from Governor Jerry Brown and the victory of Proposition 30 in California this month as they contend with “fiscal cliffs” and budget holes.

What Brown says and did points to a way forward for those who serve us at New Britain City Hall, the State Capitol and the U.S. Capitol.

Well-financed anti-tax referenda in California have often prevailed. But Proposition 30 passed with a 54% majority.  The measure called the School Protection and Safety Act by proponents hikes the sales tax from 7.25% to 7.5% and raises income taxes progressively on high income individuals (above $250,000) for seven years.  Approval brings close to $7 billion averting what Brown promised would be draconian cuts and hardships for working and middle income people.

“It sold itself. The core reason it brought people together was a belief in schools and universities and the capacity of government to make wise investments that benefit all of us,” Brown said on election night.

Prop 30 proponents such as California’s American Federation of Teachers made the identical argument  President Obama and Congressional Democrats now must use to restore federal tax rates on the wealthiest Americans to pre-Bush levels: 

Prop 30 asks no one but the wealthy to pay more in income taxes.  This income tax affects no one below $250,000/year. The top one percent of income earners has doubled its share of total state income over the past twenty years (from 12% to over 20%), while income for the rest of us has stagnated. Meanwhile, the top tier tax rates (state and federal) are lower than they used to be.  20 years ago the highest tax rate in California was 11% of income; today it is 10.3%.  When Congress extended Bush’s federal tax cuts for the rich in 2010, the top one percent in California received a windfall of nine to fourteen billion dollars per year—nearly equal to the entire state budget deficit.  The people who would be affected by this income tax can afford to, and should, invest more in their state.

Brown, 74,  is a  former Oakland Mayor, Attorney General, Secretary of the State, two-term Governor and Presidential candidate. The son of former CA Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Brown took over from “The Gubernator” after the 2010 election; stepping into the biggest economic crisis since 1930s, massive layoffs and disinvestments  and a gridlocked Legislature that needs two-thirds consent to get budgets done.

In his second coming as Governor,  Brown’s modus operandi (he’s fond of Latin phrases from his seminarian days and Jesuit training) has been, he says,  telling the unvarnished truth about the state budget and never using one-time revenue fixes and gimmicks that make matters worse in CA and everywhere.

Pragmatic progressive Brown will entertain plenty of cuts and austerity, but through Prop 30 he’s now got a firewall against a Paul Ryan-style decimation of basic government services, especially to education.

In referendum-crazy California, Brown pledged not to raise any more taxes unless citizens approved them via the ballot initiative.  The tax cutters got beat at their own game. At the same time, Brown campaigned vigorously for a plan that gives  K-12 schools, community colleges and California’s higher education system a new lease on life and keeps the books balanced.

Brown, according to the LA Times, says Prop 30 signals a national movement of taxpayer support for public investments and tax dollars spent prudently.  He draws a parallel to the famous Prop 13 of 1978 property tax revolt that cut regressive local taxes and Prop 30 that will raise taxes progressively.

Said Brown: “I was here in 1978, when Howard Jarvis beat the entire establishment, Republican and Democrat, because the property taxes had just gotten out of control. Now the cutting, the cutting and the deficits are out of control.”