SACRAMENTO -- Gov.-elect Jerry Brown had some words of advice for those gearing up for the budget he will propose next month: "Please sit down if you're reading the stories on the budget on Jan. 10. If you're driving, fasten your seat belt because it's going to be a rough ride."
That much has been evident from the hard truths Brown continued to unleash Tuesday at UCLA during a forum focusing on where education fits in the state's overall revenue picture. It was his second budget forum in seven days, and Brown made it clear that few people will emerge unscathed as the Legislature seeks a way out of a potential $28.1 billion hole.
After being cheered at the start of the forum, Brown said, "I don't know if you'll be cheering after the budget comes out."
But Brown also telegraphed what some took to be hints that he is laying the groundwork to take a tax hike initiative to voters in the spring.
"I think the signals are clear that he'll push through an austerity budget with an all-cuts budget early in the year, and he'll say if you don't like it, here are the revenues we need," said Robert Cruickshank, editor of the liberal Calitics.com blog.
Brown said he wanted to complete the budget in 60 days, saying, "I don't think we have a lot of time to waste" -- a hint suggesting that he would like to allow the bad news of harsh cuts time enough to sink into voters' minds before a spring special election.
"Where I see openings that will pave the way for positive initiative, then I'm going to lead the charge," Brown said. "But I'd want to do it very carefully and very thoughtfully because I want to make sure we succeed."
Brown even drifted into soliloquies that warmed the hearts of liberals, referring to California's deficit as a fraction of the state's overall wealth and talking about the harmful effects of the "redistribution" of income to the wealthy.
"Income redistribution that's occurred upward from the middle class and below is now at a level comparable to pre-Depression 1920s," he said. "So what we are facing is not only a budget deficit. We're facing a societal crisis, and we will only resolve it as we understand it and we work not only to exercise a discipline, which has been sadly lacking, but also a fairness that enables everybody to feel they have an honest stake in the whole society. That's the larger picture here."
He called the current era, with widening gaps between the wealthy and middle class, "a very difficult period. We've never had it before. It may be worse than the Depression in terms of political pressures, the tearing of the social fabric."
Those who are the most privileged, he said, "really have to take the lead" in resolving the fiscal crisis. He said that group includes government agencies, which can do "a lot more with less."
Education officials urged Brown to seek tax increases to lift a downcast education system that has taken $17 billion in general fund cuts over the past two years.
"Temporary taxes need to be extended," said Joel Shapiro, superintendent for South Pasadena schools. "Absolutely, we can't do without revenues. We need to educate the voters of California "... that the only way to keep the education system from deteriorating worse is to increase revenues, taxes or fees."
But Brown appeared slightly miffed at the tone Shapiro took toward voters.
"You say we've got to educate them -- in some ways, they've got to educate us," Brown said. "It's not really a we/them. It's society. There's a lot of hostility to government. They look at the city of Bell, they pick up the paper and see firefighters getting a $250,000 pension. There's a lot of skepticism about government in the political process. That's a reality and we have to take the world as we find it and we have to work through it."
James Johnson, a Long Beach councilman, asked Brown how he intends to figure out the contradiction voters have between their desire to fully fund schools and their hostility to taxes.
Brown answered, partly in jest: "That's why we're here -- we're hoping one of you people will come up with it. We didn't gather here just to hear ourselves speak."
One dilemma, he said, was that the state tries to make sense out of competing outlooks from regions that have little in common -- an argument, he said, for shifting many of the state's responsibilities to local governments.
"When we take so many local decisions and put them all at the state Capitol, then we have all these different perceptions working on the problem," he said. "That's why we get a lot of breakdown and gridlock. Because people see the world differently."
One indication of how he'd like to "offload costs" from state to local: There are 45,000 inmates who are incarcerated for 90 days or fewer in state prisons who he said could be housed in county institutions at a lower cost.
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.