Back in his very first term, Gov.-elect Jerry Brown often used clichés old and new to make his points.
University professors who sought pay raises didn’t need them as much as some other people because they get “psychic rewards” in addition to their pay, he said, trying for a cliché of his own making. Later, he reminded voters who expected new freeways without paying higher gasoline taxes that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”
That last old saw somehow eluded outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose administration devised myriad ways to move California’s debt into the future, creating what looked at times like a figurative free lunch, but one that came to haunt him right up until these, his last days in office.
The ultra-irresponsible Schwarzenegger approach appears to have rubbed off on most Californians. They want it both ways, according to every poll. They favor cuts to the state budget, found a November survey by the Los Angeles Times and USC. But they vehemently object to cutting programs they like – and good numbers of Californians value almost every current state program.
Meanwhile, just half those surveyed said they would deign to consider even a small tax hike linked somehow to spending cuts. And 65 percent said the current state budget deficit of about $25 billion should be eliminated either exclusively with program cuts or mostly with such cuts.
Contradictory as they seem, these findings must be taken seriously, since the Times-USC poll proved the state’s most accurate in the runup to the fall election.
It adds up to an unrealistic electorate that right now appears still to believe in free lunches.
Which means Brown’s biggest and most urgent task once he takes over early next month will be to convince voters they will either have to make do with much less of what they like or be willing to pay more for it.
He was pretty successful at this while mayor of Oakland in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Voters there by 2-1 margins twice approved Brown-backed parcel taxes to pay for new charter schools and more police officers and firefighters.
But Oaklanders, with a high crime rate and poor-performing public schools at the time Brown became mayor, felt an urgency. So his task may have been much easier there than it will be to convey an “if you want to keep what you’ve got, you’ll have to pony up” message statewide.
One reason is today’s high level of distrust of government, fueled in part by the obscenely high salaries and pensions some city officials have voted themselves in recent years, with the now-notorious Los Angeles County cities of Bell and Vernon two extreme – but not unique – examples.
Another is the habit of instant gratification many Californians adopted in their personal lives and finances over the last decade or so. One major cause of the foreclosure crisis that afflicts California more than most states is that homeowners here delighted in the seemingly “free” money to be had via refinanced mortgages while real estate was booming. “Tapping home equity” became a major pastime in those years, with many borrowers figuring they’d never have to repay the loans. They thought they could keep on refinancing into the distant future whenever large payments came due.
They bought boats and flat-screen TVs and SUVs and other toys with the easy money, and if property values dropped beneath the amounts of their refinanced loans, many simply walked away from the houses that once fueled their lifestyles.
The same mentality prompted Schwarzenegger to back big bond issues in order to balance budgets and to employ endless gimmickry when bonds became unacceptable.
Brown may need a series of television addresses to begin turning this mindset around. He may need to lay out exactly what will have to be cut and by how much if voters should reject any and all new taxes to help balance the budget.
There’s no question Californians are generous when it comes to providing programs to aid the elderly, the indigent, the infirm, the students and more – so long as it costs them no more than they’re already paying. That’s what every poll of the last few years has indicated, with local taxes to help schools perhaps the lone exception.
So it will be quite a trick to convince a majority of them to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for anything. If Brown can get them to go for even a mix of program cuts and tax increases, he will have achieved a massive shift in the way Californians think and behave.