California's budget drama heading toward a bleak ending 

Have you ever watched one of those predictable and boring movies where you wish you could just skip the obligatory chase and romance scenes and get to the “I see it coming” ending already? That’s what I feel like as I watch the unfolding drama regarding the state budget crisis. Despite all the machinations, Californians are not going to boost their taxes to prop up this ill-performing government.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently suspended his talks with the GOP after Republicans had the audacity to demand that the governor consider placing various conservative-oriented reform initiatives on the ballot in exchange for putting tax extensions before voters.

Knowing the spinelessness of the GOP legislators in general, I’d guess Brown could have bought a few off with phony reforms and managed to get his tax-vote through. Brown has claimed that his vote idea is about the fundamental right of the people to determine their fate — a situation he once compared to the protesters in the Middle East.

In his world view, distorted perhaps by $30 million in union campaign spending on his behalf, the people have a fundamental right to vote — but only on a tax question, not on cost-saving measures to reform the government. I once harbored the secret hope that Brown would be beholden to no one, a politician at the end of his career who wanted to build a legacy of putting California’s unruly government back on track. But now we see that Brown is just another phony, more similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger than anyone would like to admit.

It would be a major embarrassment for Brown if he puts various measures to the test and the reform ones pass and the tax ones don’t. Instead, Democrats are looking at legally questionable means to get the tax extensions before the public without any GOP legislative votes. They might pull it off, but voters are likely to say “no thank you” despite all the Democratic efforts to let voters decide.

The Republicans have been hotly debating the wisdom of the legislators who are negotiating with the governor over reforms. It’s a tactical debate, with most conservatives opposed because they fear that the tax vote could pass and that the reform measures won’t be meaty enough to reform anything. The negotiators believe that it’s a historic opportunity to get long-needed reform and that the governor’s desperation to place his tax votes on the ballot gives them leverage.

Ultimately, it’s not going to matter. In fact, even if the Democrats get their way and convince the public to approve taxes, the drama still ends with the state eventually running out of money — although a tax approval will delay things until the sequel. California government spends more money than it receives in good years and bad ones. The state already has one of the highest overall tax burdens in the nation and businesses really are fleeing.

So California continues down the same road despite all the machinations in the state Capitol. The action hero couldn’t save us because he backed away after getting slapped down in 2005 by the unions that run the state government. And the new governor, despite his well-honed frugal image, can’t save us, either. His cuts are basically window dressing.

Maybe it’s fitting that Brown is a retread from the 1970s — that’s when so many movies had bleak endings. Unless, someone fixes the script quickly, this will have a sad ending, too.

Steven Greenhut is editor of; write to him at

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