California Gov. Jerry Brown's hopes of enacting a multibillion-dollar tax increase received a big boost over the weekend from a poll showing that his revised tax plan is favored by nearly two-thirds of voters, having picked up strong support from independents.
However, the same poll also hinted that Brown's plan ― a small increase in sales taxes coupled with a big boost in income taxes on the most affluent taxpayers ― could be vulnerable to a well-financed opposition.
Brown believes he's hit a political sweet spot, coupling the popularity of public schools with taxes on the unpopular rich that only a handful of voters would pay.
The very friendly ballot summary provided by Attorney General Kamala Harris says that proceeds from Brown's plan would largely go to schools, and that's how the University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll described it.
In fact, however, schools would get little or nothing extra from the measure beyond what state law already requires. The real net beneficiaries of his taxes would be non-education programs, from prisons to welfare and health care for the poor, which are endangered by the state's chronic budget deficit.
Indeed, Brown and his allies have stressed that effect in criticizing a rival income tax plan for schools that civil rights attorney Molly Munger and the PTA are pushing. Brown is, in effect, trying to have it both ways, an Achilles' heel that Munger indicates she'll exploit if the two measures go head-to-head.
Last week, as the USC/Times poll was being finalized, Munger told the Associated Press that a new ad campaign would "get the truth out" about their differences, "especially when the governor's out saying things like his is an education initiative, when it isn't."
"It's important for us that voters know that," Munger said.
As the daughter of billionaire investor Charles Munger, she has the resources to attack Brown's plan vis-a-vis schools and tie it, instead, to prisons and other unpopular programs.
Brown would counter that the state's major school unions, including the California Teachers Association, support his tax hike over Munger's. But if she continues her attacks, he'll have no choice but to reply in kind, and an all-out war could poison the atmosphere.
A negative campaign could be Munger's best hope of prevailing since on its merits ― a general income tax hike that excludes only the poorest taxpayers ― her plan scored only about half of the support Brown enjoys in the USC/Times poll.
Brown's top political adviser, Steve Glazer, tweeted Monday that it's "political malpractice for her consultants to claim it can win," and that may be true.
But she could spend many millions trashing Brown's measure and also make it less likely that he would win.
The article was published by Sacramento Bee and distributed by Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com).