California Gov. Brown talks taxes, cuts and economic fairness

Like other states across the U.S., California's grappling with a giant budget hole. Gov. Jerry Brown talks about the role of government and the tension between taxing the rich and cutting programs for the poor.

Kai Ryssdal: There's the American Dream -- we've all heard of that -- and then there's California Dreaming: Hollywood, Silicon Valley, beaches and plenty of sunshine. Also, Sacramento, the capital. That's where Gov. Jerry Brown announced last week that the budget gap out here is a little more than he had originally guessed.

OK, it'sa lot more. It's almost double to just shy of $16 billion. The governor's got a plan, though: spending cuts, and he wants to raise taxes -- a higher sales tax and surcharge on the wealthy. Voters get to decide; it's going to be a referendum in November -- raising taxes on the rich to avoid drastic cuts in services to the poor.

As part of our continuing coverage of Wealth and Poverty on this broadcast, Gov. Jerry Brown joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Jerry Brown: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: Seems to me what we have here, sir, in this budget question is the defining issue of our political times, right? The question of what government does -- social services, education -- versus our willingness to pay for it. Where do you find the fulcrum -- what's the balance point?

Brown: Well the balance point is the budget itself, and my willingness to either stand for balance or to fold like governors before me. Since I've been here before -- I was governor from 1975 to January of 1983 -- I want to fix it. And it may take us a year or two, but we're going to get to the goal of living within our means.

Ryssdal: Why is it that this debate, Governor, happens on the far ends of the economic spectrum? We're talking about cutting services for the most needy in our society and taxing the very richest. How do you reconcile that with an electorate that lives mostly in the middle?

Brown: Well, the electorate in the middle is telling every survey that they don't want any more taxes. They are willing to see the taxes on the most affluent increase at least temporarily -- if it's for schools, for public safety and for the most vulnerable. So faced with a gap of $15.7 billion, I can either fold my tent and then just slash away, or I can give the voters an opportunity to say, 'OK, we'd like to shoulder part of that burden.'

Ryssdal: What happens, Governor, if Californians opine against these taxes? Are you ready to let the cuts happen and then see how ready and willing people are actually to pay for what they get?

Brown: The cuts will be built in to this year's budget very soon.

Ryssdal: But Governor, having them built in and letting them actually happen are two totally different things. Are you ready to actually let it happen?

Brown: Wait, I beg to differ with you. These will be automatic; that's why they're called trigger cuts. A no-vote pulls the trigger and we cannot finance our budget without borrowing. We cannot borrow unless our budget is truly balanced. It cannot be balanced without having automatic reduction in spending after the election, if the voters so decide.

Ryssdal: And then what happens? Do you think, once these cuts go into effect -- assuming Californians decide not to maintain the taxes -- do you think people will finally realize the connection between services and getting what you pay for?

Brown: I think people know that you can't get something unless you pay for it. So there's no doubt that as this population ages, as the world gets more competitive, we're going to have to invest through the public sector more, not less. But now when people to agree to that, I can't tell you. And if people don't, there will be a shrinkage over the next many years and decades.

Ryssdal: How is it, do you suppose Governor, that the issue of income inequality, of big government versus taxing the rich versus wealth and poverty and all of those dynamics in this economy today -- how did it all get so political? How did we get here?

Brown: I don't know how much history you know.

Ryssdal: A decent amount.

Brown: Take a look at the 1800 election between Adams and Jefferson -- a lot of nastiness there. Look at some of the campaigns, what they said about Abraham Lincoln. Part of democracy is a measure of skullduggery and shaming and blaming. But somehow, we've made it. And we'll continue if we find a few people of courage and clarity that can mobilize the better spirits of our people.

Ryssdal: Well let me continue with that theme then quickly, if I might: Isn't the essence of a representative democracy that we the citizens cede some of our power to you, our representatives, and you guys make the hard choices, right? How are you doing so far on that one?

Brown: Well I think we ought to make it our choices. Does it fit with what I was brought up as a good Catholic to think is right? No. This is not in accordance with what Jesus or Muhammad or any other prophet would have recommended. But here's the world we live in, and we're trying to make it the best way we can. I'm optimistic that California is going to set the example. California's created more patents, we've got more venture capital, we have more Fortune 500 companies. We're on a path of recovery, and we're on a path -- I believe -- to resolve some of these deeper contradictions that in Washington, they appear to be increasingly paralyzed by.

Ryssdal: Jerry Brown, he's the governor of the state of California. Thanks a lot for your time, sir.

Brown: My pleasure.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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