Now that Jerry Brown has gone public with the second attempt of his latest turn as governor to deliver a balanced budget, it’s fair to speculate about how different things might be today if he’d lost to Meg Whitman, his billionaire 2010 Republican opponent.
The answer: Not very, mostly because it’s unlikely any governor could make many different choices. Most variations would likely be the consequence of having a Republican governor committed to the standard GOP no-new-taxes pledge pitted against solid Democratic majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.
In brief, it’s doubtful legislative Democrats, beholden as they are to labor union campaign donors and liberal interest groups, would accept some of the very same cuts they’ve agreed to under Brown.
Make no mistake, those lawmakers are unhappy with the budget slashing Brown conducted last year. Some – most notably state Senate President Darryl Steinberg – say they won’t go along with the further social service and education reductions in Brown’s newest financial plan until they see what state government’s cash flow looks like two or three months from now.
But they’re not digging in their heels against Brown, as they might have with Whitman, the former eBay executive now ensconced at the helm of the Hewlett-Packard computer firm in Palo Alto. Yes, Brown’s plan balances the budget mostly at the expense of the poor, the elderly and students. But few come out and call him inhumane, as they would label any Republican doing the same things.
There are, of course, areas where differences would be certain. For one, over his two budget plans, Brown has made either real or proposed cuts of more than half a billion dollars to the University of California and California State University systems. Most of that money will be exacted from students and their parents in the form of jacked-up tuition and fees, as the state’s level of support for higher education ebbs to an all-time low. Plus, Brown threatens to cut another $4 billion-plus from public elementary and high schools unless voters approve a tax increase next fall. Not exactly the “education governor.”
Whitman, by contrast, pledged to “invest $1 billion” in those same public university systems, promising to get the money via “savings from welfare and other budgetary reforms.” Of course, it’s questionable whether she could have made changes of that scale over the objections of the Legislature, so the result might have been a stalemate, with the UC and CSU systems winding up with about their previous levels of support. Either way, they would be better off today had Whitman won. So would elementary and high schools, where Whitman probably would not even have tried to eliminate or delay transitional kindergartens for children born between September and December, something Brown now proposes.
But welfare recipients and in-home health care clients and providers might be even worse off than they've been under Brown. Whitman, for example, vowed to blue-pencil entirely the in-home care program and essentially let helpless and often penniless elderly and paraplegic persons somehow try to fend for themselves. Perhaps she believed, as Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has claimed in several of his party’s presidential debates, that “volunteers would come forward” to do the job. Reality is there might have been some such volunteers, but only a fraction of what it would take to replace the entire program.
In this area, Brown hasn’t behaved very differently from what Whitman outlined. His budgeteers tried to axe the in-home care program last year only to see legislative Democrats revive it, although to a lesser extent and expense than its previous form. Brown also cut the state’s welfare-to-work program substantially and proposes to chop it more. He seeks, for one thing, to end welfare payments for parents who don’t meet work requirements after 24 months, rather than the current four years. Combined with his projected cut to child care subsidies, that would lop more than $1 billion from the next budget, just about what Whitman said she would transfer to the colleges.
All of which means that in his new incarnation, Brown does not exactly fit into the “tax-and-spend” liberal category, as Republicans often claim. Plainly, he is also no slave to the unions that largely paid for his campaign (ask unionized workers at state prisons, where more than 3,000 jobs may be eliminated). And it means that a Whitman administration, had she tried to keep her campaign promises, might not have been all that different for almost everyone except university students and professors.