Analysis: A stingy Brown may win over Californians on taxes
SAN FRANCISCO |
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Jerry Brown is turning off California state workers' cell phones, a largely symbolic gesture that won't even dent the state's $25 billion budget hole but could move the new governor toward his end game -- getting voters to trust him enough to back tax hikes in June.
When Brown, 72, was first governor three decades ago, he reportedly slept on a mattress on the floor of an apartment in the state capital Sacramento.
In his third term that began this month, he has found new ways to scrimp, like renting a loft within walking distance of the capitol building and hiring his wife as an unpaid adviser.
That's quite a contrast to his predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who commuted by private jet from his Brentwood mansion in southern California, albeit paying for it out of his own pocket.
In 2009 he failed to get voters behind a tax hike similar to the one Brown is proposing, and the new governor's bid could fall short as well despite his sharply different style.
Field Polls showed 81 percent of Californians saw the state heading in the wrong direction last year, and Brown himself assessed the 2010 election as a giant 'no' to new taxes, and Republicans say the 2009 vote against Schwarzenegger's hikes showed an enduring trend.
"How many times do the voters have to tell us 'no more taxes'?" State Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway said after Brown announced his budget, which calls for a statewide vote in June to extend tax hikes set to expire this year. That would raise $12 billion a year for five years.
California's dismal economy has made voters less willing to open their pocketbooks.
But they also don't trust the government to spend their money well, a theme which came up again and again in polls before the 2009 vote on the proposals, which failed by nearly 2-1 margins.
That is where Brown's frugality comes in.
By doing a political transition on the cheap, Brown saved the state $650,000, less than 0.003 percent of the hole facing California over the next year and a half.
He has cut the budget of his own office by 25 percent, saving $4.5 million, and this week he ordered that half of the state government-paid cell phones -- some 48,000 -- be turned off, for a $20 million annual saving.
"While $20 million in savings isn't going to fill the deficit, it is a step toward not only restoring faith in state government but also saving taxpayer dollars," said Brown spokesman Evan Westrup.
Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, gave Brown even odds of getting the tax extension ballot measures past voters in June.
"Voters can relate to cell phones," he said. "These are all symbolic gestures to make voters believe that somebody is looking at the waste," added Stern, who worked for Brown decades ago when he was secretary of state.
"If he can convince voters that he is going to be a skinflint, that's the word I'm going to use, then it is more likely the voters are going to say, 'OK, we trust you to spend our money wisely', and that's what it is all about," Stern added."
Skepticism that Brown could bring about real change to California's notoriously troubled finances was high only a couple of months ago.
But the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst and others have agreed his budget plan is a sharp break with plans over the past decade filled with accounting gimmicks. Its equal mix of spending cuts and taxes has some appeal to all sides.
Moreover, Brown has avoided cuts to public schools and prisons. Both have powerful unions.
"Probably the greatest chance to succeed at the polls is to minimize the number of big opponents," said Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll. "He seems to be doing that."
Californians tend to think a full quarter of state spending is wasted, he added, and the ballot issues skirt that problem by sending funds to more trusted local government, which is a major part of Brown's overhaul.
"Voters think there is just this Department of Waste, Fraud and Inefficiency -- eliminate that one, and we'll be fine," he said. "By saying that these monies are going to be used and transferred to the local level, I think he's got a fighting chance."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Xavier Briand)
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