“I’m going to do a little preaching,” said California governor Jerry Brown on October 21. He was speaking to a congregation at an Oakland church, where he quoted the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 12, verse 48: “To those whom much is given, much will be required.” This is Brown’s favorite line in his crusade to raise taxes through Proposition 30, which Californians will vote on Tuesday. The verse has become a standard trope of his stump speeches for the measure, which would increase income taxes on Californians earning more than $250,000 a year and hike sales taxes for everyone. But biblical themes aren’t new for the governor, who was, after all, a Jesuit seminarian before he entered politics.
Speaking to clergymen at Sacramento’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament last spring, Brown said that high-income Californians “have been blessed, and they must join with us in blessing those that have not been as fortunate.” What is Brown really saying here? Wealthy Californians, he implies—and Brown regularly conflates those making $250,000 a year with “millionaires”—didn’t achieve their earnings through hard work or creative effort, such as making useful products people want to buy. Rather, they were simply “blessed,” another way of saying that wealth was simply handed to them. Now they “must join with us.” Note the commanding tone. This is not a call for dialogue. The “us” in this case would be the state government, and those who believe, as Brown does, that government’s role is to redistribute wealth. Government giveth, but government also taketh away.
California taxes personal income at seven rates, including a top rate of 10.3 percent, the second-highest rate in the nation. The state’s second-highest bracket of 9.3 percent is higher than the top marginal rate in more than 40 other states. (Seven states—Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming—impose no state income tax.) A single California worker hits the 9.3 percent rate at $48,000 of income, which is a long way from the much-reviled “1 percent.” But California’s high earners—those in the top 10 percent—pay a disproportionate share of state revenue, which contributes to volatility and imbalanced budgets. This extractive tax system is hardly fair. The fairest system would be a flat tax, which Brown, who once claimed to be a “born again tax cutter,” advocated as a presidential candidate way back in 1992. He now wants a punitive state to be even more punitive. Brown has also compared Republicans seeking budget negotiations with the Pharisee Nicodemus.
The governor’s biblical side, however, is not merely rhetorical. Last year, when state controller John Chiang cut off legislators’ salaries because of lapses in the budget, Brown attempted to create an extra $4 billion ex nihilo—or, as Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters put it, “as if by miracle.” The governor didn’t say where the money would come from, but some clues have emerged. This summer the Bee reported that the state Parks Department had accumulated $54 million and failed to report the revenue for 12 years. Parks director Ruth Coleman resigned over the hidden funds, which she blamed on Manuel Thomas Lopez, the department’s former deputy director of administrative services. The Bee revealed that Lopez has a “string of criminal convictions” and had spent 12 of his 23 years in government on court-ordered probation. Lopez allegedly underreported the $54 million and the state Department of Finance, headed by Brown ally Ana Matosantos, failed to cross-check the figures. The revelations outraged state senator Noreen Evans, a Santa Rosa Democrat.
“Selfish bureaucrats stashed away money for their personal gain,” said Evans in a statement. “If one department can hoard $54 million for 12 years, who else is playing the same tricks of deceit and thievery?” The governor’s response was different. “Hallelujah!” Brown said. “More money is better than less money.” The governor also told reporters, “This is the first problem I’ve ever seen where actually people in government saved money, and that’s good, because we have the money and we can use it.” The governor expressed no moral outrage over a state department hiding so much money, which under any other circumstances would be viewed as a massive act of fraud. He said he would look into how it had “happened,” implying that nobody was responsible. He issued no denunciation of lax oversight, nor did he call for those responsible to be disciplined. It was as if the scandal was some sort of act of God.
Oddly, Brown’s routine biblical rhetoric hasn’t raised the hackles of those professional watchdogs ever mindful of maintaining the “wall of separation” between church and state. When religious conservatives make biblical references in discussions of public policy, it’s usually a cause for media alarm. It isn’t hard to imagine how the American Civil Liberties Union or Citizens United for the Separation of Church and State or People for the American Way would react to a Republican governor campaigning for a tax cut he claimed would be a blessing for working people. Likewise, Brown’s effort to create $4 billion out of thin air didn’t prompt pundits to cry “voodoo economics,” a description that certainly fits in this case.
Jerry Brown was never a born-again tax cutter; he is, however, a born-again tax raiser and big spender. The governor who once wanted a California space program now signs off on a $68 billion high-speed railroad system. The one-time Governor Moonbeam has become the Reverend Jerry, pounding pulpits and quoting proof texts. And now abideth rhetoric, regulation, and taxes—but the greatest of these is taxes.