It’s high time for Gov. Jerry Brown to use the bully pulpit that comes with his office. The somewhat vague but nonetheless real deadline for getting legislative approval to put his budget plan before the voters this June now draws near and he still hasn’t won over a single Republican lawmaker.
Brown has almost exclusively played an insider’s game so far, trying to jolly the GOP into giving him the handful of state Assembly and Senate votes needed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to get a special election vote on his ideas for resolving California’s $26 billion deficit.
Simply put, Brown’s budget plan depends on a combination of severe cuts and a five-year extension of several temporary taxes in effect since 2009. With a legal June 30 deadline for passing a budget, Brown must have an early June vote on his plan or he’ll have to come up with alternatives that involve only cuts.
The reductions already in Brown’s plan will close many state parks, place new burdens on homebound seniors and the developmentally disabled, increase class sizes in public schools while decreasing course offerings, severely limit doctor visits by Medi-Cal patients and much more.
So far, the governor has spoken only vaguely about the consequences if voters reject his ideas, but it’s clear reductions would then be much wider and deeper. He’s said he will accept that if it’s what the people decide in a fair election.
But he believes it would unwise, maybe even immoral, for legislators to deprive the public of a chance to vote. Yes, Brown as an almost lifelong politician is well aware of the pressures on Republicans, who have seen every party mate who went along with the 2009 increases booted from office.
Which means it’s high time for him to create a different kind of pressure on those same lawmakers. Enter the bully pulpit.
Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt used “Fireside Chat” radio broadcasts during the Great Depression to build both national morale and public support for his economic programs, politicians have commandeered radio and television time to go over the heads of Congress or state legislatures.
So far, Democrat Brown has confined himself to lobbying the lawmakers and has won praise even from Republicans for reaching out to them. He set examples of frugality for all of state government by cutting off half the state’s array of cell phones, slicing hundreds of cars from the state fleet and ordering a hiring freeze.
He even flew sans retinue on a Southwest Airlines flight from Sacramento to one speech in Los Angeles, a highly symbolic contrast with ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who usually traveled with an entourage on a private jet. It was one of only a handful of forays Brown has made outside the capital since his election last fall.
Still, he has not changed even one Republican vote. Brown knows this better than anyone.
Which means he must do more. Brown needs to ask television stations everywhere in California for 15 minutes or half an hour of air time soon in order to reach masses of voters. Expect this soon. “Stay tuned,” press secretary Gil Duran said when asked whether it will happen.
The last California governor to use this tactic with any frequency was Ronald Reagan, who later employed the same technique to reach beyond Democratic majorities that dominated Congress during most of his presidency. As governor, Reagan went straight to the people to explain why he cracked down on students at the UC Berkeley campus. He also did it to plump for a property-tax cutting initiative he sponsored in a 1973 special election. The tactic eventually won Reagan the “Great Communicator” sobriquet, even though he didn’t always achieve his immediate aims.
Brown’s most effective campaign commercial last fall was one where he concluded a pitch by looking straight into the camera and making the simple promise “No new taxes without voter approval.”
Now he needs to look the voters in the eye again. The image of a governor flying coach class with the hoi polloi goes only so far. Brown must ratchet up the debate by showing voters all over California exactly what they stand to lose if they’re deprived of a chance to vote on his budget plan.
If he makes the case that further cuts would devastate programs beloved by partisans of both parties, he might arouse enough public pressure to convince reluctant Republican legislators their future depends on a yes vote, especially with the new “top two” primary election system looming in all their futures.
One thing for sure: Brown will have to do this soon and probably more than once, if he’s to generate the groundswell he needs.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org