The arrogance displayed last week by California’s legislature and its union comrades-in-arms can scarcely be exaggerated. In rejecting Governor Jerry Brown’s surprisingly ambitious pension-overhaul plan in favor of a proposal that defines minor tinkering as “reform,” Democratic legislative leaders have ignored how crippling the pension crisis has been for local governments, as well as the bipartisan support that exists for serious reform. And in approving on Friday Brown’s plan to spend $5.8 billion in federal and state funds on a troubled high-speed rail project—the so-called bullet train—Democratic leaders have dismissed mounting public skepticism about the project as well as substantial evidence from independent evaluators and journalists that it could become one of the world’s biggest public-works boondoggles.
If there is any good news here, it is that the legislature’s contempt for common sense and public opinion should only fuel California voters’ building anger toward the Sacramento establishment. This anger seems increasingly likely to deal two huge strikes against the status quo in November.
The first involves the California budget. Brown’s $92 billion spending blueprint for 2012–13 relies heavily on voter approval of a November ballot measure to hike the state sales-tax rate and impose higher income taxes on the wealthy. Brown claims these moves will raise $8.5 billion. If voters balk, $6 billion in already-set “trigger” cuts would kick in, with by far the biggest chunk taken out of public schools through a reduction in the school year from 175 days to 160.
Taken at a time when most voters still aren’t paying attention and before any serious campaigning has gotten under way, polls show soft support for the tax measure—but they also show that the plan loses substantially if it’s linked to high-speed rail spending. Tax fighters may not need to play the rail card, however: California voters have a record of rejecting tax increases, including a proposal similar to Brown’s that lost decisively in a 2009 special election.
A second ballot measure could spur a more profound change. The “Stop Special Interest Money” campaign, while billed as limiting the political influence of both unions and corporations, is primarily about curbing unions’ vast power by banning the use of members’ dues for political purposes. The measure is sure to be vilified by the California media, whose members tend to share the Democrats’ view that the greatest problem the state faces is the required two-thirds majority to raise taxes. In 2005, unions used a massive TV blitz to defeat a similar measure, Proposition 75, and it’s likely that they’ll try to do the same again. But in the seven years since then, public perception of union power in the Golden State has become much more negative.
Which brings us to last week’s double whammy from Sacramento. Unions drove both the decision to kill Brown’s pension-reform plan and to pursue his bullet-train project. To use a trendy new term among the political class, the “optics” of both decisions couldn’t be worse. The legislature’s pension vote came just days after the city of Stockton, facing unsustainable public-employee compensation costs, declared bankruptcy. The commitment to spend $5.8 billion in taxpayer funds on a bullet-train segment in the lightly populated Central Valley came after two years of apparent anguish from Brown and Democratic allies about harsh cuts in state safety-net programs.
Bad as they are, if these blinkered public-policy decisions prompt voters to rebuff a massive tax increase and to curb union power, they will have had a salutary effect. Freed from some of the worst excesses of union looting, Sacramento might then return to conventional governance for the first time since Pete Wilson’s gubernatorial tenure ended in 1999. As for the bullet train, environmentally based lawsuits might delay construction until a likely 2014 state referendum on scrapping the project. And if that project does come to another vote, count on Californians to do the right thing.