LOS ANGELES — First came a competing save-our-schools ballot initiative, backed by a wealthy lawyer who proved more persistent than Gov. Jerry Brown had hoped. Then came a summer of minor financial embarrassments that handed Mr. Brown’s opponents a narrative to use against him.
Now comes a nagging question: Against that backdrop, is Mr. Brown’s $8-billion-a-year proposed tax increase in trouble?
On Nov. 6, California voters will face their usual thicket of ballot measures, 11 in all this time around, ranging from a further crackdown on human trafficking to the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food. But the most prominent by far is a budget-easing measure being pushed by Mr. Brown, who wants voters to approve tax increases to head off even more cuts to the state’s already decimated education system — a loss would automatically set off about $5.5 billion in cuts from public schools and $500 million from the state’s public colleges.
Proposition 30, as the measure is called, would increase statewide sales taxes by one-fourth of a cent and impose an income tax surcharge on Californians who earn more than $250,000 annually. The sales tax increase would expire after four years, and the income tax component would last for seven years. Some of the new money would go to public safety programs, like the supervision of parolees.
Stepping up his campaign for the initiative on Aug. 15, Mr. Brown, 74, framed his argument in biblical terms, telling a crowd gathered at a Sacramento high school, “To those who much has been given, much will be required,” a reference to the Gospel of Luke. The week before last, campaigning in San Diego, he said that students would see “real suffering” if voters rejected the plan.
A defeat could have consequences for the state and for Mr. Brown even beyond forcing deeper cuts in a school system that already ranks 47th in the nation in per-pupil spending. So strenuously has the governor pushed the measure, and so closely has he become linked to it, that a defeat would most likely curb his influence, and might even invite a primary challenge from a younger generation of Democrats. As Mr. Brown approaches the end of his career, his broader legacy is also in play.
“This initiative has been defined as seminal to his governorship,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
But Proposition 30, supported by California’s teachers’ unions, has run into two snags, both of which are out of Mr. Brown’s control.
One is a rival education measure, Proposition 38, which is backed by Molly Munger, a civil rights lawyer who is the daughter of Charles Munger, the billionaire vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Ms. Munger’s initiative would raise income taxes on nearly all wage earners, although wealthy Californians would bear most of the burden.
Her measure would raise about $10 billion a year, with the bulk going to schools and some going to pay down state debt. It would expire after 12 years and is supported by theCalifornia State PTA.
Mr. Brown made various attempts to eliminate competing ballot measures; some political experts say multiple tax-related measures could confuse voters, or at least make them weary of tax issues. But Ms. Munger refused to back off, and she has so far poured $19 million into her campaign. “There’s room for more than one idea about how to fix our schools, and on a topic this important, voters deserve a chance to choose,” Ms. Munger said in an e-mail.
Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Proposition 38, added, “Our TV campaign, focused on making sure voters know Prop 38 is the only one that sends money directly to schools, will now start rolling out aggressively.”
Ace Smith, the campaign manager for Mr. Brown’s proposition, said Ms. Munger’s tax initiative was of little consequence to the governor’s plan, calling the theory that voters shut down when presented with multiple tax measures “stale conventional wisdom.” If anything, Mr. Smith contended, Ms. Munger’s ads will give Mr. Brown’s measure a lift. (If both measures pass, the California Constitution stipulates that the one with the greatest number of votes takes effect.)
Mr. Brown’s tax increase may also be threatened by a series of minor spending scandals that undermine his carefully devised message that voters can trust Sacramento with more of their money.
Recent months have brought the disclosure of pay raises to hundreds of legislative staff members, many already making six figures. In a bigger setback, state parks administrators acknowledged that employees kept a budget surplus of nearly $54 million hidden even as the park system faced cutbacks and dozens of closings. Such missteps — along with Mr. Brown’s support of a $68 billion high-speed rail project at a time when the state supposedly does not have money for schools — have invigorated opponents like theHoward Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
“What else are they keeping from us?” Jon Coupal, the president of the taxpayers’ group, says in a radio ad that has been running lately.
Mr. Brown had no comment, but Mr. Smith said support for Proposition 30 showed “a real steady progression” over the summer in various polls, which indicated support at about 54 percent. “I just don’t see any evidence for the supposition that these things are hurting Prop 30,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Still, Mr. Schnur said Mr. Brown’s tax increase, which once seemed to have a good chance of winning despite California’s antitax history (voters have rejected the last eight tax increases on the ballot), is now “very vulnerable.”
“The poll numbers show it passing, but with a level of support in the low 50s, which is considered shaky ground,” Mr. Schnur said.
Mr. Brown has a few things going his way. Polls show that voter support for Ms. Munger’s initiative is weaker, and Mr. Brown won a legal battle in July for his proposition to appear first on the ballot.
Ms. Munger may have a fat checkbook, but Mr. Brown has done all right himself, with supporters raising about $11 million. Support has been particularly strong from businesses — Indian casinos, soft drink companies, oil — worried that they could become targets for additional taxes if Proposition 30 fails. Meanwhile, opponents have struggled to raise money.
Two weeks ago, the Legislature gave Mr. Brown some help, pushing through an overhaul of state workers’ pensions that will save taxpayers billions and giving the governor a way to prove to voters wary of a tax increase that he is working to reduce government spending.
A potential pitfall remains that expensive high-speed rail project that Mr. Brown has championed. But some political analysts say it might give him a card to play. If the campaign is a close one, “his best chance for getting Prop 30 across the finish line is by announcing that he’s postponing action on the rail project,” Mr. Schnur said. “At some point over the coming weeks, Jerry Brown may have to decide what he wants most, the ballot measure or the train.”