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Jerry Brown's Zen Budget Strategy

While governors from Wisconsin to New York battle the unions over budgets, California’s Jerry Brown is giving labor what it wants now—and may ultimately win bigger budget concessions.
February 21, 2011 |
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New governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and New York are making headlines by launching front assaults on public employee unions. They argue that there's no way to balance the budget without taking on government workers

California and its new governor appear to think differently.

Jerry Brown, facing a two-year budget shortfall projected at $26 billion, is pushing a budget proposal that, for all its tough cuts and new revenues, protects the school and prison funding demanded by California's most politically potent public employee unions—those representing teachers and prison guards.

Since these unions backed his campaign for governor, critics have begun to accuse Brown of a political sellout. The governor, for his part, maintains publicly that he is favoring no one and asking for budget sacrifice from everyone.

But if this is a sellout, it may prove a very cunning one. By giving labor what it wants now, Brown may ultimately win bigger budget concessions than his fellow governors achieve through political war.

If such a strategy sounds more than a little Zen, it's worth remembering that Brown famously traveled to Japan in the 1980s to study Zen Buddhism. But the new governor also seems to be drawing on recent California history. Brown's two immediate predecessors, the Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democrat Gray Davis, a Brown chief of staff during his first governorship in the 1970s, got into big fights with key public employee unions. Those battles, whatever their merits, crippled the governors politically and contributed to their failure to manage the state's budget effectively. Leaders of those unions—in particular the California Teachers Association, the most sophisticated political entity in the state—have claimed for years that they could help solve the state's budget problems if governors would cooperate with them instead of picking fights with them.

Judging by Brown's actions in his first six weeks in office, the new-old governor is giving the unions the opportunity to prove it.

Brown's budget proposal has CTA's fingerprints on it, from its protection of school funding to its embrace of temporary tax increases that the teachers' union supported during a failed 2009 special election. And Brown has taken other union-friendly steps. In his first week in office, he replaced the majority of the state school board, which had been supportive of charter schools and other reforms that teachers' unions dislike, with more union-friendly, reform-skeptical members. The governor also dropped a Schwarzenegger-era lawsuit that sought to give governors the power to reduce state workers' wages to the federal minimum wage when the state budget doesn't pass on time.

Most strikingly, Brown has resisted pressure to add pension cuts and tax reforms to his budget proposal, even though such changes are in line with Brown's long-stated policy preferences and might attract support for his proposal from centrist voters and Republican legislators.

In explaining his reticence, Brown has said he does not want to complicate an already difficult budget proposal with controversial add-ons. That stance mirrors the position of several unions that want the temporary tax increases in Brown's proposal to be presented to voters in a June special election in a "clean" form—without attachments to muck things up. Some of these unions opposed similar temporary tax increases in 2009 because they were attached to a Schwarzenegger budget reform that would have limited long-term government spending.

So what's clever about Brown's strategy? The governor, by giving the unions so much, is forcing the unions to own his controversial budget proposal. This has put the onus on them to find a way to get it approved.

This dynamic has not been well understood. So far, the focus of media and commentators has been on Brown's inability to gain the support of legislative Republicans, who, despite their minority status, can use California's supermajority-mad system to block the tax increase extensions. With the GOP able to stymie him, the Brown strategy looks like a big political risk.

But the political difficulty of passing such a program, and the reduced expectations for it, may turn out to be its essential strength. The governor may win regardless of the outcome.

If the unions manage to sell the legislature and voters on his approach, Brown can claim significant budget savings and an unlikely victory. And if the unions and his budget proposal fail, Brown could emerge with a stronger hand to force those same unions to accept deep cuts and ambitious reforms that they have long resisted.

In the event of defeat, Brown should be able to tell the unions: Look, I tried to accommodate you, and it didn't work. Hamstrung and weakened, labor would be in poor position to fight Brown as it did Davis and Schwarzenegger.

Of course, given how broken California's system is, a stronger governor won't be nearly enough to fix what ails this state and its budget.

But one has to admire—and other governors should take note of—the Zen-style logic: To weaken a powerful man in your path, don't attack him with your own knife. You'll only end up bloodied. Better to hand the powerful man your knife—and hope he cuts himself.