Capitol Alert

Brown’s opinion looms over proposals for November ballot

Gov. Jerry Brown carries an outline Thursday of his proposed 2016-17 state budget after a news conference at the Capitol.
Gov. Jerry Brown carries an outline Thursday of his proposed 2016-17 state budget after a news conference at the Capitol.

Gov. Jerry Brown, after criticizing proposals to extend temporary tax increases for containing the “fatal flaw” of circumventing California’s budget reserve requirements, was asked Thursday if there was any tax extension he could support.

Brown demurred: “I’ve already said more about ballot measures than I’ve ever said before.”

Which was not much. But for any group looking to the November ballot – and perhaps more than a dozen complicated ballot measures – even a twitch from Brown can carry weight.

“It matters where this governor falls on initiatives hugely,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “Jerry Brown is box office gold for California initiatives for two reasons: First, he’s got the best brand in California politics … But just as important, he has a lot of money left over to spend. He has this huge political war chest, and he brings that to the table.”

Brown’s remarks, at a news conference at the Capitol, followed the release of his spending plan for the coming fiscal year. Besides criticizing the tax-extension proposals, Brown offered a dim assessment of a $9 billion school bond, calling it the handiwork of home developers that would preserve a flawed school construction program. And he warned of the potential cost to the state of a proposal that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Brown enjoys a relatively high public approval rating and holds about $24 million in two campaign accounts. His comments came at a critical time in the campaign calendar.

The school bond already has qualified for the November ballot, but a new law allows proponents to pull it off of the ballot through June 30. That could put pressure on proponents to strike a deal with Brown and the Legislature to put a smaller bond on the June ballot.

The tax-extension proposals are much less further along, and there is time for proponents to retool the measures to try to address the governor’s concerns and still make the November ballot. In early 2012, for example, Brown and union allies reached a deal on a temporary tax increase measure and turned in signatures that spring in time to go before voters in the fall.

Former state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell, who supports the bond as well as extending the 2012 tax increases, said “you would obviously love to have the popular governor support the school bond.” Bond proponents are open to talks with the Legislature and Brown on a June compromise measure, he said, but raised concerns that the smaller June electorate would be less supportive of borrowing for school construction.

Jeffery Freitas, secretary-treasurer of the California Federation of Teachers, which supports a tax extension, said of gaining Brown’s support, “Is it a do-or-die situation? Not necessarily. But every bit helps.”

But he said the union would consider altering an effort to extend Proposition 30 taxes to include deposits into the reserve account if it resulted in Brown’s support.

Likewise, Democratic strategist Gale Kaufman said the unions pushing the tax extensions “look forward to more conversations with the governor and are hopeful we can address his concerns.”

Brown declined to comment on another tax measure seeking a spot on the November ballot. It would impose a surcharge on high-value properties to raise an estimated $7 billion for a variety of health, welfare and educational programs. Organizers have started gathering signatures.

Bill Carrick, a consultant for proponents of the anti-poverty measure, said the governor is aware of what supporters want to accomplish.

“The obvious reality is, you’d love to have the governor’s support. He’s well regarded by the voters and respected, and he can be influential, depending on how much effort he wants to put into something,” Carrick said.

Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant, said Brown is in a strong position to influence the ballot makeup and results. Brown has strong approval ratings and voters are “inherently suspicious” of ballot measures, suspecting “they haven’t been told the whole story.”

“If you have a governor who is respected and viewed as doing a good job, expressing an opinion on a ballot measure that directly relates to the job running the state, under those specific circumstances, could make a difference,” he said.

Yet recent California history shows that initiatives have a mixed record when governors weigh in.

Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, pulled a $15 billion budget-balancing bond to victory within months of taking office in 2003. In 2006, while running for re-election, Schwarzenegger’s backing helped secure victory for $37.3 billion in public works borrowing and tough new rules on sex offenders.

In 2004, Schwarzenegger used his star power – and his money – to help secure a come-from-behind defeat of Proposition 66, which would have softened California’s “three strikes” sentencing law.

But in 2005, when the Republican governor championed measures to weaken teacher tenure, restrict union dues collection, cap state spending, and take away the Legislature’s authority to draw the state’s political map, labor unions clobbered the initiatives and Schwarzenegger saw his approval rating plummet in the process. And in 2009, voters thumped several budget-related ballot measures headlined by Schwarzenegger.

“Do voters care what the governor is going to have to say about marijuana legalization? Probably not really,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who worked for Schwarzenegger. “But I think they will about taxes. He’s the chief executive of the state, and taxes have to do with running the state.”

Stutzman said Brown’s “`fatal flaw’” remark was “quite a shot across the bow.”

“I think it’s fair to speculate that there’s a very good chance he’ll actively oppose any measure that doesn’t preserve his rainy-day fund. It’s kind of the linchpin of his fiscal responsibility when it comes to budgets.”

In 1988, then-Gov. George Deukmejian, who had won a landslide re-election two years earlier, signed the ballot argument opposing Proposition 98, which would create a constitutional school-funding guarantee. It eked out a slim victory, and today is a major part of the state budget process.

“Just because even a popular governor opposes something, it doesn’t mean it’s going to get defeated,” said government attorney Steven A. Merksemer, who was Deukmejian’s chief of staff, adding, “I do think it’s important for governors to pick and choose their fights.”

Brown has been more selective than most chief executives about endorsing – or publicly opposing – ballot initiatives and other candidates, frequently refraining from commenting on measures in which he is not intimately involved.

In previous years, this has extended even to matters of personal significance to Brown. In 2012, he declined until Election Day to say how he would vote on a failed ballot initiative to repeal the death penalty, despite his long-standing moral reservations about capital punishment.

On the subject of two other ballot measures, regarding marijuana and gun control, Brown said, “All I would say is, Don’t smoke marijuana when you’re using your gun.”

Brown said last month that he is considering placing a measure of his own on the 2016 ballot, while he will almost certainly have to devote resources to defeating a threat to his Delta water project.

“There’s a few things which I’m not ready to lay out for what we do,” he said while in Paris for climate talks. “We’re going to do something.”

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson, said Brown’s position on any tax initiative on the November ballot will be significant, but less meaningful than how fervently Democrats turn out in the fall, which in a presidential year is likely to be driven more by the Democratic presidential nominee than by a governor.

A Proposition 30 extension, Whalen said, “is probably at the mercy of one thing, and it’s probably not Jerry Brown. It’s Hillary Clinton ... If Democrats turn out in droves, you get a large Democratic turnout in California, I suspect (an extension) will pass.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders