Jerry Brown’s plan to balance the state budget is wonkishly complex and exhibits a certain intellectual elegance.
It would, he says, spend the state’s limited resources on the highest-priority programs and services, realign state and local government responsibilities, and temporarily increase some taxes to cope with effects of recession.
Obviously, Brown faces a stiff challenge in the Legislature, whose Republicans oppose the added taxes and whose Democrats are skittish about deep, and avowedly permanent, cuts in spending on social services and health care for the poor, aged and disabled.
But even were he successful in the Capitol, he would still have to persuade voters to approve the taxes. And that would mean overcoming not only their reluctance to pay more taxes — about $250 per year more for every Californian, on average — but the ignorance factor.
Although the state’s budget crisis has dominated political media coverage for years and countless millions of words have been written and spoken about its causes and effects, the sad truth — as a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll demonstrates — is that voters are mostly ignorant about how taxes are collected and spent.
Although most voters profess to have substantial knowledge of state and local government finances, just 16 percent of them could identify K-12 education as the largest area of state spending. Nearly half declared prisons as the biggest chunk of spending even though it’s actually No. 4.
The PPIC poll also found that just one-third of voters could identify the personal income tax as the state’s largest source of revenue. A tiny 9 percent of likely voters correctly named both the top spending category and the top revenue source.
If Brown’s plan reaches the ballot, he will have to fight through the confusion to sell the plan to voters who have little tolerance for higher taxes. A majority of voters, for instance, expressed support for Brown’s cut-and-tax approach to the budget, including the income, sales and car taxes he wants to extend.
But when asked later whether they would raise those taxes, they voiced strong opposition.
These are the folks upon whom Brown depends to understand what he’s doing and agree to do it, including continuing taxes meant to be temporary. However, a political campaign is not, to use a phrase currently in vogue, a “teachable moment.” If the tax extensions reach the ballot, the governor and his allies won’t be appealing to sweet reason.
They’ll almost certainly resort to scare tactics about shutting down schools or releasing prison inmates to prey upon the public.
Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.