“Governor Moonbeam,” They called him
They said he couldn’t do it. They said he was a hopeless romantic, dreaming the same way he had always dreamed throughout his career—with his head in the clouds and his feet in the air. He wanted too much from a political climate that budged too little. Governor Jerry Brown wanted to balance California’s budget. California: the Greece of the United States.
Dismissal of Jerry Brown isn’t unexpected. This is a man whose unrealistic idealism has earned him the nickname “Governor Moonbeam.” Brown obtained the nickname in the late 1970s when he proposed that California build its own space academy, which critics deemed impractical. After his pop star girlfriend publicly referred to Brown as her “Little Moonbeam,” critics ran with the name.
Brown doesn’t operate the way a typical politician would. He lacks charm and doesn’t care about pleasing others. In 2012, he publicly challenged Chris Christie to a three-mile run and a push-up contest after Christie called him old. The nickname has come to represent everything about Brown that strays from conventional behavior for a politician, to symbolize his far-fetched dreams, to summarize his decades of public service in two words. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that few people took Jerry Brown seriously when he set out to balance California’s budget.
Cynics weren’t wrong to doubt him. When Brown was elected in 2010, California was running a deficit of $25 billion. California’s credit rating was ranked dead last in the nation. The state was in a mountain of debt. But despite all that, Brown stood in front of television cameras in January 2013 and declared, “The deficit is gone.” Not only was it gone, but there was a surplus of $4.4 billion. And California’s credit rating was upgraded. Somehow, he did it—but how? How did Brown take a hostile political environment and bend it to his will?
It seems Brown exploited his own reputation to get what he wanted out of the state. He had planned to use Moonbeam-style politicking in order to balance the budget from the start.
Brown’s first step was to cut spending and to be as grim as possible while doing it. Brown proposed to cut salaries for most state employees by 10 percent, to cut back on education (thus angering college students), and to scale back Medi-Cal. He shifted state programs to the local level. He vetoed his own party’s budget proposal, and stressed that he would continue to propose tough budgets unless the state made excruciating fiscal choices soon. One reason for the spending cuts was earnest policymaking on Brown’s behalf. But these spending cuts were part of Brown’s plan all along. He wanted California to hurt from the cuts. He wanted California to be angry at him.
The second part of Brown’s plan was to raise taxes, but not in the usual way. That would have meant passing a tax plan through a recalcitrant state legislature that required a two-thirds majority to raise taxes. Instead, Brown went full Governor Moonbeam on California: He put his tax plan on the ballot as a referendum called Proposition 30. Essentially, he asked California voters to raise their own taxes.
He shifted his rhetoric from a gloomy doomsday narrative to an inspirational portrait of good government. After cutting the state budget to the point where Californians couldn’t take it anymore, he asked citizens to consider the good that government could do for them, given the revenue. He promised to revitalize the education system, which mollified angry college students. He curried favor with the middle class by including new high-income tax brackets in his referendum.
Governor Moonbeam’s campaign reached comic proportions at times. At one point, he sent his Welsh corgi on a “30 for 30” tour across the state and sent out an email supporting Prop 30 written from the corgi’s perspective. His campaign’s only worry was that the corgi “might alienate the cat vote.” In the end, Brown’s quirky, idealistic campaigning paid off, and Proposition 30 passed by an almost 11-point margin. The new revenues that it brought to the state, coupled with Brown’s spending cuts, are largely responsible for the first budget surplus the state has seen in a decade.
The question, then, is why Governor Moonbeam’s treatment worked in California. In a state no more easily charmed than any other, his quirky style worked because of a strategic use of issue priming. Brown needed to highlight the state’s financial woes to his constituents in order to get their support behind Prop 30. Partly because of California’s credit rating and partly because of Brown’s personal style of governance, Brown opted not to borrow much money to pay for the state’s bloated services. In the absence of borrowing, Brown cut spending—and that got his constituents’ attention. It primed the issue and made it ready for action. It may have caused suffering among his voters, but perhaps that was necessary to get them thinking about the budget in the first place.
With the budget at the top of the political agenda, Brown was in a position to put his tax referendum on the ballot. Since it would be voted on by the public, powerful interest groups would be less able to influence the outcome of the vote than they would have been if they targeted specific state lawmakers. And since everybody’s taxes would be raised (due to a sales tax increase), voters figured they would benefit from the revenue increases they were paying for. As such, a majority of Californians evidently found the referendum palatable and voted for it. It appears, then, that Brown’s agenda involved issue priming at its finest.
Looking forward, however, Brown faces new challenges. He may have balanced California’s unwieldy budget, but he still has to deal with a mountain of accumulated debt. He needs to worry about the effects his spending cuts will have on the state economy. He needs to be cautious about overtaxing an already disempowered populace. He must prepare for some bitter fights with the state legislature over how to spend the surplus—if he intends to spend it at all. Brown has given the state a first step on the path toward economic stability, but now he should be looking at ways to more holistically address California’s long-term economic woes. The budget deficit was just one ingredient in a boiling pot of issues for the state. Is Governor Moonbeam ready and able to move forward on other issues as well?
photo of Jerry Brown by Phil Konstantin: http://bit.ly/11pATnE