In California, unions are sinking Brown’s budget proposal

Laer Pearce Author, Crazifornia
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Talk about crappy timing for California’s Democrats: An oversized colon was sitting on the California capitol’s north lawn Monday, even as budget talks broke down and the powerful California State Employees Association and the California Teachers Association rallied on the capitol’s south lawn for higher taxes.

The colon was a publicity stunt by a Democrat assemblywoman from San Francisco, Fiona Ma, whose cause was fine even if her timing wasn’t. She put the 20-foot-long replica intestine on the capitol lawn to promote a resolution that declares March to be Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, but it can’t help but be seen as a symbol for the constipation that’s blocking the state’s budget process, and the colon-full of bad news that’s hit California governor Jerry Brown.

The worst news for Brown broke early Monday morning when it became public that the “Gang of Five” Republican senators who were trying to find a middle ground with the governor have ended their budget talks. Both Connie Conway, the GOP Assembly leader, and a spokesman for Bill Emmerson, a Gang of Five senator, confirm that the talks are dead, but Brown’s camp insists they are continuing.

That Brown is clinging to the talks is as symbolic as the colon. To admit the talks’ failure would be to concede that public employee unions, which gave $30 million to Brown’s gubernatorial campaign, are indeed running the state. Brown must cling to the talks to show he has the independence to broker a deal, but in reality, the unions killed them and do run the state. As Conway told Sacramento radio station KMJ, “It’s the [Gang of Five’s] impression that, even though the governor seems willing, labor has said ‘no’ to all of the requests.”

Brown may seem willing to compromise, but in fact his entire budget campaign has been an effort to get a balanced budget without turning labor against him, something that precludes his ability to find a middle ground with the GOP. His budget proposal sought to make up the state’s $26 billion deficit through equal parts of cost-cutting and tax-hiking. Because he said he was “spreading the hurt,” he insisted on putting off any meaningful talk of curbing runaway state employee expenses until after the legislature passed his budget and placed his tax-increasing initiatives on the ballot.

His effort was flawed from the start, and he had to quickly address numerous analyses showing his spending cuts are closer to $8 billion than $13 billion because many “cuts” are actually just the kind of accounting tricks he promised he’d avoid. The error cost him credibility among moderate and independent voters, who were looking to Brown for straight-shooting instead of politicking.

Then he made a second strategic error last Friday by saying he would propose pension reform provisions in order to keep the budget talks alive. When the talks broke down Monday and the GOP blamed the unions for the collapse, it showed that Brown doesn’t have the will or the ability to force the unions to make any concessions.

All this is going on against the backdrop of Wisconsin, even if Californians have a reputation for not paying attention to fly-over country. One example of the increasing clout of the pension reform movement occurred a couple weeks ago in the Orange County city of Costa Mesa when the city council stared down a room packed with angry city employees and voted 4-1 to send pink slips to nearly half of its workforce in order to cut the city’s pension liabilities.

The Costa Mesa council majority betted that the power of the public is on the rise as that of the public employee unions is waning. If other cities pick up on it, and many certainly will, we will see a major swing of California’s political pendulum. Of course the state remains dominated by Democrats, but engaged voters are exposed almost daily to the excesses of the government class and the disparities between public and private sector wages and benefits. As a result, interest in fundamental changes to public employee labor agreements, like those proposed recently by California’s Little Hoover Commission, is on the rise. But Brown is stuck with a budget proposal that leaves public employee wages and benefits untouched.

Even if he succeeds in getting his tax initiatives on the June ballot, which looks unlikely given the breakdown of budget talks, he can’t count on voter approval. Voters turned down Gov. Schwarzenegger’s tax-hiking initiatives in 2009, and they certainly could do it again — especially if they feel they’re being asked to pay for untouchable public employee benefits. In January, a statewide poll showed a watery 53 percent in support of Brown’s initiative, but that’s hardly a fat enough early margin to give the governor confidence.

Brown must be getting uncomfortable. It’s looking increasingly likely that he will only be able to put together a budget if he takes a meaty chunk out of the hand of the unions that fed his campaign. In the end, it will get down to whether Brown is chanting the public employee unions’ mantras in his heart of hearts, or whether he’s just whistling along for political advantage. If it’s the former, he’ll be another failed California governor whose vision was swamped by budget battles, but if he can turn on his backers and embrace meaningful reform, he has a chance of being the sort of legendary governor his father Pat was.

Laer Pearce, a veteran of three decades of California public affairs, is currently working on a book that shows how everything wrong with America comes from California.