Dan Walters: Jerry Brown's tax hike in jeopardy

dwalters@sacbee.comOctober 14, 2012 

As he began his second governorship last year, Jerry Brown warned that California faced a potential "war of all against all" if the state budget was not fairly balanced, or as the former Catholic seminarian put it in Latin, "bellum omnium contra omnes."

Brown now has the war he didn't want as Proposition 30, the tax increase ballot measure upon which he has staked his governorship, and perhaps his place in political history, is hammered from the left and the right by two very wealthy siblings, Charles and Molly Munger.

Republican Charles, a Stanford University physicist, is giving millions to the anti-tax zealots who previously had only scarce funds to exploit Californians' low opinions of Sacramento's politicians and thwart Brown's $6 billion per year sales and income tax hike.

Liberal Molly, a civil rights attorney, had spent more than $30 million to promote her $10 billion income tax increase for schools, Proposition 38, but last week started pouring money into ads denouncing Brown's measure as a phony pitch to save education.

Brown knew going into the campaign that new taxes are a hard sell to California voters, especially during a lingering economic recession. But he successfully neutralized business groups and assumed that the anti-tax groups would have only a relatively tiny war chest to oppose him, while he had millions in union and corporate funds.

However, with Proposition 30 just barely above 50 percent in recent major polls, the one-two Munger punch – or as one wag described it, the "Munger sandwich" – places Brown's measure in grave jeopardy.

The timing of the Mungers' attacks could not have been worse from the governor's standpoint. It came just as millions of California voters received their mail ballots, which means that his campaign and others for and against ballot measures and candidates for legislative and congressional seats now face an ever-diminishing audience for their pitches.

It also came as Californians were beset with a rapid increase in gasoline prices, which will hit their household budgets and damage, to some unknown degree, their receptiveness to new taxes.

Brown's camp has marshaled pleas to Molly Munger from education groups to back off her anti-Proposition 30 drive, but she gives no signs of retreating. For months, it's been apparent that she was miffed at Brown for trying to pressure her to drop her measure, so there's a personal dimension to their current conflict.

What does Brown do now?

Does he just plow ahead for the next three weeks and hope for the best, or does he divert millions into attacks on the Mungers, perhaps portraying them as out-of-touch dilettantes trying to buy elections with unearned money from their father, wealthy investor Charles Munger Sr.?

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