Dan Walters

Jerry Brown would undermine a spending limit he sponsored

California voters shocked the state’s political figures by passing Proposition 13 in 1978, and none more so than Jerry Brown, who was seeking his second term as governor.

Brown had denounced the property tax limit measure as “a ripoff (and) a legal morass” but performed one of his characteristic political pirouettes after its passage, labeling himself a “born-again tax cutter” and declaring, “Voters have told us they want a tax cut. They don’t want a shell game.”

Brown sponsored a hefty state income tax, which helped him win re-election, and then almost immediately launched his second presidential campaign as a strident advocate of a balanced federal budget.

As part of that political makeover he joined hands with Paul Gann, one of Proposition 13’s sponsors, to push another ballot measure, Proposition 4, that would impose strict spending limits on state and local governments.

Brown called a special election in 1979 for what came to be known as the “Gann Limit,” and nearly three-quarters of voters backed passage.

The Gann Limit’s effect was felt during successor George Deukmejian’s governorship, requiring a $1.1 billion rebate to taxpayers, but a few years later, in 1990, Deukmejian supported a new ballot measure that loosened its provisions. Ever since the Gann Limit has been a nonfactor.

Until now.

Without announcing it publicly, Brown – now back in the governorship after a 28-year hiatus – is asking the Legislature to once again modify the Gann Limit, albeit through the back door.

He wants a new way of calculating the limit that exempts $22 billion in spending from its provisions, thus allowing overall expenditures to rise further.

The Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, says Brown’s proposal is “violating the spirit of Proposition 4.” He describes the $22 billion in school-related spending Brown wants to exempt as “nowhere money” and is telling legislators that “the plan would be highly vulnerable to legal challenges.”

What’s up?

Brown’s proposed 2017-18 budget would put spending just a few billion dollars under the Gann Limit, Taylor’s office has calculated. Furthermore, Taylor believes that state revenues are likely to be several billion more than Brown has projected, which could bring the Gann Limit into play. Also, Brown wants a multibillion-dollar increase in transportation revenues, which could also push spending over the limit.

There’s obvious irony in Brown’s new flip-flop – co-sponsoring Proposition 4 in 1979 to further his presidential ambitions and now, 38 years later, trying to undermine it.

The irony is compounded by the proposed transportation spending that the Gann Limit, if enforced, could thwart. Deukmejian sponsored the 1990 revision in part to make room for a transportation package he also wanted.

Irony aside, it is fundamentally cynical and wrong to undo something the voters wrought without taking it back to them.

It would not only undermine the Gann Limit but equally undermine, even more, voters’ confidence in the political process.

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