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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Jerry Brown and California Taxes

A story I reported 18 years ago for CNN has recently become an issue in the California governor’s race. Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate, quoted it on her website on Sept. 6. Her Democratic rival, Jerry Brown, says I got it wrong.

Brown is right; I made a mistake in my 1992 report.

The issue is whether taxes went up or down during Brown’s previous time as governor, starting in January 1975 and ending in January 1983.

Most of what I said back in 1992 remains true. I was critiquing Brown’s claim — in a TV spot he was running during his presidential primary campaign — that he had "cut taxes for working people." I said that "inflation pushed state taxes up" during Brown’s early years, "helping create a tax revolt." I also said at the time that "Brown then supported cuts." All that remains true.

But I was wrong when I said that "state taxes were still higher" during his last year than when he began. In fact, they were a bit lower.

That’s shown in this chart, based on official figures from the California Department of Finance.

Based on these most recent figures, state taxes — measured as a portion of each $100 of personal income — increased during four of Brown’s eight years, and during six of those years they were higher than before he took office. But they were lower during his final two years.

I say "most recent" figures because the historical figures that the state published in January are markedly different from the figures the state published in January 1992, the figures on which I relied for my CNN report. I thank H.D. Palmer, the Department of Finance’s deputy director for external affairs, for digging out the appropriate page from a paper copy of a budget document published in 1992. Oddly, the official historical figures that were available to me back in 1992 vary by anywhere from 13 cents to 32 cents per $100 compared with the figures the state now lists for Brown’s years in office. Palmer has promised an explanation for those shifting historical tables, which may have been updated to reflect more recent Census figures. But the state’s revisions aren’t the reason for my error. I simply picked the wrong year for my comparison.

Brown took office Jan. 6, 1975. My CNN report compared the Brown years to taxes in fiscal year 1973-74, the last full fiscal year that preceded Brown’s inauguration. But the state’s fiscal year starts July 1, and I should have taken fiscal year 1974-75, the last year for which Gov. Ronald Reagan was responsible. (It’s shown simply as "1974" on the chart above, for simplicity’s sake.) The first year for which Brown was responsible was fiscal year 1975.

The point I was trying to make in 1992 remains valid. Brown’s claims to have been a tax-cutting governor — then and now — need to be seen in context. As I said then, rising taxes in Brown’s early years helped bring about a tax revolt. It came in the form of Proposition 13, a ballot initiative through which voters amended the state Constitution to roll back local property taxes and impose a requirement that any future state tax increases be approved by a two-thirds majority in each house of the state Legislature. Its passage was a shock to California, and echoed nationally as well.

Brown was a staunch foe of Prop. 13 — until it passed. Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton, who has covered California politics since 1974, recalled recently: "The governor railed against Prop. 13, calling it ‘a fraud,’ ‘a rip-off’ and ‘a can of worms.’ " But then the measure passed — with 65 percent of the vote. "That was the low point of Brown’s first term as governor — a low point that lasted maybe 40 seconds," Skelton reported. Brown then embraced Prop. 13 and directed its implementation.

— by Brooks Jackson