Gov. Jerry Brown, starting to campaign in earnest for his Nov. 6 ballot initiative to raise taxes, labored Wednesday to put the state parks scandal and other potentially damaging developments at the Capitol behind him, hoping to refocus public attention on schools.
"This is not about any other issue," said Brown, flanked by students outside New Technology High School in Sacramento. "It's not about the environment, it's not about pensions, it's not about parks. It's about one simple question: Shall those who've been blessed beyond imagination give back 1 or 2 or 3 percent for the next seven years, or shall we take billions out of our schools and colleges to the detriment of the kids standing behind us and the future of our state?"
The appearance, billed by Brown as the "kickoff" to his campaign, was the first in a series of school visits planned to promote Proposition 30, which would raise the state sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners. It comes less than two months after the Democratic governor signed a state budget requiring about $5.4 billion in cuts to schools and community colleges if his measure fails.
Timed to coincide with the beginning of the new academic year, the campaign may help Brown leave behind a series of potential distractions including the disclosure last month of nearly $54 million in hidden state parks money and the revelation that more than 900 legislative employees received pay raises this year.
Brown also signed legislation last month authorizing initial construction of California's $68 billion high-speed rail project, a highly controversial bill.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and other tax opponents have centered their campaign on the argument that high-speed rail and other expenses are frivolous, and that the Brown administration wastes tax money it already has.
Brown on Wednesday offered his most direct rebuttal yet to that criticism. Asked about the potential impact of the parks scandal on the campaign, Brown said he was prepared for the question and wanted to "exhaust" it.
"You can bring up all the foibles, and you know what? There's a lot more," Brown said. "You know, we've got a lot of flawed people around here. I've got some flaws myself, and you can probably dig 'em out. And, you know, a lot of people don't like things about me or what I say.
"And I can tell you things about the Legislature; I could tell you things even about the L.A. Times and the AP and The Sacramento Bee and the media empire. Lots of flaws, I mean, you know they're losing money all the time. But, having said all that, are you for 30 or are you against 30? I think it's a pretty self-contained, zero-sum game."
Public support for Brown's tax measure remains above 50 percent, but precariously so, according to recent polls. It continues to outrun a competing tax initiative proposed by civil rights lawyer Molly Munger, but her resources for a campaign are significant.
Munger on Tuesday donated another $5 million to her campaign, Proposition 38, raising her total contributions for the year to at least $17.8 million.
It is not yet clear how much money Brown can raise to promote his measure, or how much anti-tax activists will spend. Brown's initiative had about $5 million on hand at the end of June before adding, among other donations, $1 million from the California Nurses Association.
Munger proposes to raise income taxes on all but California's lowest earners. Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for the campaign, said in a prepared statement that Brown's appearance Wednesday was "good stagecraft" but that Proposition 38 would raise more money for public schools.
Proposition 38 would not avert billions of dollars in automatic, midyear spending cuts if Proposition 30 fails, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, but it could raise billions of dollars more for schools in future years. As written, money from Proposition 38 would not be available until July 2013. But school districts faced with the midyear spending cuts conceivably could borrow against it.
On Wednesday, Brown emphasized that passage of Proposition 30 was the only sure bet against the cuts.
"I can tell you one thing," said Brown, whose measure would also help balance the state budget. "Only this measure saves cuts this year."
Joel Fox, president of the Small Business Action Committee, said there will be "some cuts" to education if Proposition 30 fails, but he said Brown exaggerates the impact. Fox said voters should turn down the tax increase to send a message that Brown and state lawmakers should enact pension changes and otherwise reduce spending.
Brown has tried for more than a year to raise taxes, consistently tying his effort to school funding. Wednesday's optics were familiar: Early last year, in his unsuccessful effort to persuade legislative Republicans to put a tax increase on a ballot, Brown visited schools in Riverside, Stockton and Santa Clarita.
"I think this is not so much about education as it is putting very human faces on what it is he's trying to achieve," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for ex-Gov. Pete Wilson.
"He has to make this a much more personal argument, so you're going to see children, you're going to see the poor, you're going to see the needy, all of whom will help him make his case."
On Wednesday, Brown was accompanied by his dog, Sutter, who was outfitted in a red vest with Proposition 30 stickers on it.
Most school districts have prepared for the possibility of the tax measure failing, with contingency plans to reduce the number of school days or otherwise curb costs.
Gabe Ross, spokesman for Sacramento City Unified School District, stood in the crowd Wednesday. If the tax measure fails, he said, the district will cut the school year by up to two weeks. He said it would be "inappropriate" to say if Brown's or Munger's initiative would be preferable.
"All I can say," he said, "is we need help."