New York Times Misinforms Readers on Jerry Brown’s Budget

by Paul Hogarth on May 16, 2012

Adam Nagourney’s report on Governor Jerry Brown’s May Revise budget got one obvious fact wrong – the state doesn’t have a “new” $16 billion shortfall. The budget deficit was already $8 billion, and now we have to deal with another $8 billion. But what also isn’t “new” about the New York Times article is the false notion (repeated ad nauseam by the traditional media) that Democrats and Republicans are somehow “equally” to blame for the budget crisis. We all know the Republicans refuse to raise any taxes whatsoever, but Nagourney claims with no evidence that Democrats are “reluctant” to make budget cuts – after they agreed to make $11 billion in cuts this year alone. Brown deserves credit for pushing some tax increases (even if they are only temporary), but the state has a structural $20 billion deficit left when Arnold Schwarzenegger. And when Jerry Brown had an opportunity to correct part of that wrong with a Vehicle License Fee, he vetoed the legislation.

As I’ve written before, it is rare to get news about what goes on in Sacramento – and stories about the state budget are not sexy, and usually depressing. Stories like Adam Nagourney’s (published on the front page of the New York Times) that do nothing but repeat false myths about our state budget have outsize influence. And with the voters being asked to approve tax increases in November to help address the state budget mess, the odds could not be any higher.

The largely positive piece on Jerry Brown made him look like a grizzled veteran, stuck between two competing “partisan” interests as the state teeters on the brink of fiscal disaster. And in a stunning display of political naivete, Nagourney suggested the Governor would be vulnerable to a Democratic primary challenge in 2014 – if he doesn’t resolve the budget mess we’re in now.

First, let’s look at the facts. Sacramento Republicans (who, according to a study, are the most right-wing state legislators in the country) have – for the past decade – adamantly refused to agree to any tax increase whatsoever, having all signed in blood the Grover Norquist Pledge. Because all tax increases require a two-thirds vote, this has put any revenue solutions off the table – forcing the Democratic majority to agree to $11 billion in cuts this year alone.

So why in the world can Nagourney imply that both sides are somehow at fault – lamenting the Governor’s position as being “torn between Democrats who are extremely reluctant to impose cuts and Republicans who have refused to give him the votes needed to pass a tax increase.”

Second, the article completely missed any context of why we are in the mess we are today – and why the blame rests with Brown’s predecessor, Governor Schwarzenegger. On his first day in office, Arnold slashed the Vehicle License Fee – which blew a permanent $6.5 billion a year hole in the state budget. In March 2004, he balance the budget by having the voters borrow $15 billion – which, of course, had to be repaid with interest. Just like Barack Obama has allowed the American public to forget that George Bush wrecked the economy, Jerry Brown – and the media – won’t acknowledge that Arnold drove us to bankruptcy.

But here lies the most maddening part of the article. In October 2011, Jerry Brown had a major opportunity to start correcting the mess Arnold put us in – by signing SB 223. State Senator Mark Leno’s bill wouldn’t restore the Vehicle License Fee, but it would allow local governments to put it on the ballot – so that we can start funding our crucial services and get our fiscal house in order. It passed the state legislature several times, only to have Schwarzenegger veto it.

So what happened in 2011, when we finally had a Democratic Governor like Jerry Brown – who would ostensibly be better for our legislative priorities? Just like Arnold, he vetoed the bill. He said it was only a “piecemeal approach.” Well in that case, what the hell are his temporary tax increase measures for the November ballot – which even if they pass, the state will still have to make drastic cuts to public schools and higher education?

“We’ve made significant progress in reducing the state’s structural budget deficit in the past year, shrinking it from $20 billion to $8 billion through austerity measures alone,” said Mark Leno in a press release earlier this week. “Unfortunately, our fiscal crisis in California is far from over, largely due to the $20 billion structural deficit left by the Schwarzenegger Administration, and we continue to face a significant budget gap.”

But the New York Times won’t acknowledge Arnold’s complicity in this mess – nor Jerry Brown’s, for having vetoed SB 223. Instead, it devolved into the usual “both-political-parties-are-at-fault” line that time and again has been debunked. Now, the Governor wants voters to pass temporary tax increases – when we’re not being honest about what got us into this mess. And for progressives, the prospect of seeing these measures fail is an unacceptable alternative.

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