Dan Morain

August 22, 2012

Dan Morain: Brown hopes voters tune out Dems' antics

Gov. Jerry Brown hopes that voters don't focus on the $68 billion for high-speed rail, or on the debacle in which the state Department of Parks and Recreation hid $54 million.

Dan Morain

Editorial page editor, political affairs columnist and editorial writer

Gov. Jerry Brown hopes that voters don't focus on the $68 billion for high-speed rail, or on the debacle in which the state Department of Parks and Recreation hid $54 million.

Sometimes, you have to wonder if Democrats want Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative to fail.

Brown's Proposition 30 on the November ballot would raise income taxes on rich people by $5 billion a year, and sales taxes on the rest of us by $1 billion a year, with the money supposedly used to fund schools and public safety.

The concept leads in early polling. But that could change, especially if voters start paying attention to the silliness coming out of the Capitol.

There are bills to enrich some public employee union members, but no serious effort to overhaul public employee pensions. There's the $54 million state parks debacle, and questions about the cost of high-speed rail.

"They certainly have given us plenty of ammunition," said Rick Claussen, the veteran consultant who signed on to the effort to kill Proposition 30.

Claussen has skinned many initiatives to raise taxes, most recently the tobacco tax that failed in June. He won't have the $45 million that tobacco companies spent to kill the June tax. But he "will have adequate funding to talk to voters about dramatic flaws in the initiative."

Even if Claussen is underfunded, Molly Munger will have all the money she needs. The wealthy Southern California civil rights attorney has put almost $19 million of her own money into her initiative, Proposition 38, which would raise income taxes broadly and, unlike Brown's measure, deliver the money directly to schools.

To win, Munger will need to draw distinctions between her measure and Brown's by essentially denigrating his initiative. She's not in the campaign to lose.

"I hope Proposition 30 passes. We need the revenue. But recent history is not very reassuring," Democratic consultant Garry South said, a sentiment I share.

South made his point by recalling Proposition 217 of 1996, the last soak-the-rich income tax hike initiative. Then, as now, a Democratic president was running for re-election and turnout skewed heavily to Democrats, as it will this November. What an ideal time to pass an initiative to tax rich people, right? Not quite. The vote was close, but Proposition 217 lost.

That campaign was starved for money. Brown will have plenty. The California Nurses Association, for one, has pledged $1 million to Brown's initiative.

The union also is reprising its Queen Meg shtick. But instead of battling billionaire Republican Meg Whitman, as it did in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, the nurses union is targeting "bungling billionaires" who donate to the No-on-30 campaign.

The $1 million donation will help. The antics might not. Rich donors could decide to dig deeper out of spite. The tactics also could alienate business leaders who have been neutral on Brown's initiative.

"The nurses' actions take the campaign off the message of education and public safety, and focuses on trying to punish successful business people in California," said Allan Zaremberg, head of the California Chamber of Commerce, which will decide whether to endorse the measure in early September. "It awakens some of these people and lets them know they're under attack."

Brown understands better than most politicians the power of symbolism. To sell the initiative, he points out that most of the taxes would be paid by the ultra-rich who can afford it, and that the money would fund schools and safety, issues dear to most voters.

"One thing is clear: all the public polling shows that Proposition 30 is incredibly resilient," said Ace Smith, the San Francisco consultant who is managing the Yes-on-30 campaign.

But that's all on the surface. Revenue from Proposition 30 would flow into the maw that is the general fund. As he campaigns for the tax initiative to fund kids and cops, Brown pushes for the $68 billion high-speed rail project.

The rail money doesn't come from the general fund. That's a distinction lost on most voters, but not on Claussen. Interest on the bonds to finance the rail project would amount to hundreds of millions a year. Claussen translates that into teachers, figuring interest payments could fund 4,000 teachers, giving a glimpse of what will be the "no" campaign.

Brown hopes voters don't focus on that, or on the debacle in which the state Department of Parks and Recreation hid $54 million, or the legislative frenzy in which Democrats give out gifts to their friends.

Instead, he should hope that voters don't look beyond the title and summary of Proposition 30 in the voter handbook: "Temporary taxes to fund education. Guaranteed local public safety funding."

He should pray that Claussen doesn't get a big cash infusion and that Munger goes easy on him. And the governor ought to beg his Democratic friends to cut out their hijinks.

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