California Gov. Jerry Brown: Voters must choose between taxes and fewer crucial government services

California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks during a news conference on May 14, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  Brown proposes $8.3 billion cuts in California to help close a projected $16 billion budget shortfall.
California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks during a news conference on May 14, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Brown proposes $8.3 billion cuts in California to help close a projected $16 billion budget shortfall.
Kevork Djansezian/ Getty Images

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Gov. Jerry Brown says the state deficit grew by another $7 billion since January. He partly blamed the sluggish economy, which led to lower-than-hoped-for tax revenues. Brown also blamed the shortfall on the federal government and the courts that blocked some of last year’s spending cuts.

The governor doubled the amount of cuts he’d proposed in January: his new budget calls for a 5 percent pay reduction for state workers, a delay in court construction, smaller subsidies for hospitals and nursing homes and a 7 percent reduction in hours for workers who provide in-home support for the elderly and disabled.

“We have a more difficult problem,” Brown said. “We’re going to have to cut deeper, but cutting alone really doesn’t do it. That’s why I’m linking these serious budget reductions — real increased austerity — with a plea to the voters: please increase taxes temporarily.”

If voters reject Brown’s November initiative to raise California’s sales tax and income taxes on wealthier residents, that would trigger $5.5 billion in cuts to public schools. Public universities would lose $500 million in state funds.

Even with new taxes, health and welfare programs face severe cuts. Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said he’ll look for alternatives to cuts to the poorest welfare recipients.

“You start with cuts that may be the difference between life and death, and cuts that could lead to increased homelessness, and you try to avoid those at all costs,” Steinberg said.

In general, Steinberg predicted the democratically-controlled Legislature will pass a budget that adopts most of the governor’s proposals, including those trigger cuts to public education. Steinberg said that’s the best way to protect schools for as long as possible.

“The governor’s basic approach to how he constructs the trigger is the correct one — I just, I hate the cuts," said Steinberg. "The only way to avert the cuts is to win the election in November.”

“That’s nonsense!” said Senator Bob Huff. “You start with your priorities, you build a budget from there.”

Huff, the Senate minority leader, said the Democrats are framing a false choice.

“To say that they’re protecting education when the governor’s budget doesn’t really give them more than they would get anyway, but if the taxes don’t pass they’re going to whack them?" he said. "That’s disingenuous and it’s politics at its worst.”

Huff would like to see Democrats enact reforms to improve efficiencies and cut spending. “There’s a lot of stuff we could do that would show voters that we are trying to get our mess reined in, but instead it’s just back to the usual, ‘We need to raise taxes. There's just no other way.’”

But Gov. Brown says there’s only so much that can be saved through greater government efficiency. He insisted that, given the slow recovery, the choice is between taxes and fewer crucial government services.

“Government is a nurse," said Brown. "It’s a teacher, it’s a highway patrolman, it’s someone who’s working in a mental hospital, and when we cut, that’s what we cut. There are ideologues who say government is just an abstraction, that you can just completely eviscerate with no impact in the real world. Well, that isn’t true.”

What is true, he said, is that it’s a taken the state a long time to get into this fiscal mess and the problem won’t be solved overnight. Brown said he’s given it a lot of thought and that this budget plan is the best that he can do.

Now lawmakers get their shot. Budget hearings on the governor’s proposal start this week. Democratic leaders say they hope to pass a budget by the deadline of June 15.