Pausing in his struggle to solve, or to get others to solve, today’s iteration of California’s recurring fiscal crisis, Jerry Brown, the recurring governor, recently approved a new contract for the prison guards union. Henceforth, guards can cash out at retirement an unlimited number of unused vacation days. Most California employees can monetize only 80 accrued days. Many guards will receive lump sums exceeding $100,000. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that guards possess time worth $600 million. The union contributed almost $2 million to Brown’s 2010 campaign.
In 1980, according to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, 10 percent of the state’s general fund went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons; in 2010, almost 11 percent went to prisons and 7.5 percent to higher education. The national average incarceration cost is $29,000 per inmate per year. California’s cost is $49,000, about $7,000 more than a year’s tuition at Dartmouth.
Brown says the union is cooperating with his plan to reduce state costs by transferring prisoners to county jails. But funding this would require extension of a vehicle licensing fee and other taxes due to expire next month. Which brings us to the importance of Bob Dutton.
Leader of the 15 Republicans in the 40-seat state Senate, Dutton is the un-Brown. Where Brown is lean, exotic and epigrammatic, Dutton is ample, Main Street and laconic. And he is an impediment to Brown’s plans to get voters to increase their tax burdens by referendum, or Republicans to enable the Legislature to increase them.
As a candidate, Brown said he would seek voters’ approval for any taxes to close the yawning budget deficit. He wanted a referendum this June on a five-year extension of “temporary” taxes and fees imposed in 2009 and due to expire soon. In an off-year referendum, turnout would be low — and dominated by pro-taxation public employee unions.
Because two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature must vote to put a measure on the ballot, Brown needed two Republican votes in each. As Republicans are doing in Washington about raising the debt ceiling, some Republicans offered support for a referendum conditional on Brown agreeing to various reforms, particularly regarding public employees’ pensions: This year, more than 12,000 state and municipal retirees will receive pensions of at least $100,000. Brown and the Republicans could not agree, so there is no referendum.
In his January inaugural address, Brown, 73, said: “At this stage of my life, I have not come here to embrace delay and denial.” Dutton embraces denying tax increases for a state whose total tax burden is one of the nation’s highest. He says that when Brown “pushed me for a plan” for balancing the budget, he replied: The state expects $90 billion in revenues, up from $82 billion in 2005. “Spend it any way you want — you set the priorities.” But don’t expect more.
“Hug a Republican, make them feel good,” Brown recently told an audience. “In fact, I’m going to go up and down the state to see if I can’t hug Republicans and … tell them, ‘We love you, but give us a break, let the people vote.’” In March, Brown said:
“This is a matter that’s too big, too irreversible, to leave just to those whom you’ve elected. This is a time when the people themselves can gather together in a special election and make the hard choice.”
Dutton, evidently not the hugging sort, says making such choices is the Legislature’s job. And for the people to “gather together” — note the communitarian patina Brown puts on plebiscitary democracy — in an election about these taxes would be redundant: in two referendums, in 2009 and 2010, voters resoundingly rejected extending the taxes.
On Monday, Brown reported good news that actually is bad news for his agenda, which he has modified hardly at all. An unanticipated $6.6 billion in tax revenues over the next 13 months will reduce the projected $15.4 billion deficit, but will also reduce the force of his dire warnings about a budget balanced only by spending cuts. Yet he still insists on five-year extensions of higher sales and vehicle taxes. His only concession to the revenue windfall is to propose higher income taxes for four rather than five years.
So the revenue surge serves to underscore the state government’s metabolic urge to grow, and the unswerving devotion of Democrats to that project. Dutton’s response is economical: “Ridiculous.”
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. He may be reached at email@example.com.