His tax initiative in trouble just two weeks before Election Day, Gov. Jerry Brown is re-tuning his campaign message by casting his initiative as a jobs measure in a bid to broaden its appeal.
The adjustment, made by Brown in a series of recent public appearances, reflects the urgency of a campaign that is seeking to untie itself from controversy about education spending and to blunt conservative attacks centered on the economy, the most significant issue to voters in this election year.
"I say Proposition 30 is about jobs, because it's about kids and teachers, and they produce the brains and the skills that make the jobs of the future possible," Brown told teachers in San Francisco on Saturday, before repeating the message at a Bay Area church the next day and in a campaign blitz Tuesday through Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley.
"There are 500,000 job openings in California today, but you've got to have the skills to be able to do it," Brown said at the Fresno Area Electrical Training Center. "So community colleges are important, UC's important, Cal State's important, and so is kindergarten through 12. That's the job connection. It's skill creation."
Though the Democratic governor previously has made broad reference to the initiative's significance to jobs and the economy, he had focused his campaign to raise the state sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners almost exclusively on education and the $5.4 billion in cuts to schools and community colleges the initiative would prevent this year.
Brown continues to promote the initiative's impact on school funding most heavily. But because the initiative also would make money available for other programs, his message had become muddled in controversy with Molly Munger, the proponent of a rival tax measure, about Proposition 30's relative benefit to education.
The initiative is polling precariously near 50%.
"Employment is a major concern, and he's probably assuming it's going to be very much on people's minds as they vote in the presidential election," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
"He's hoping to grab the coattails of the issue."
The effect of Brown's shifting rhetoric is unclear. The television ads he is airing -- the best measure of a campaign's public messaging -- do not make such an explicit connection to the economy, though the ads predate Brown's testing of the issue on the stump.
"It may be that he's trying this out on different audiences and seeing what response he gets," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. "He's got a couple of weeks to get this message out."
Brown has mentioned the idea before. He said in one television ad that "the California Dream was built on schools and colleges, giving everyone a chance at a job and a future."
Ace Smith, whose company, SCN Strategies, is running Brown's campaign, was asked if a more explicit economy-related appeal will be made in a television ad before Election Day.
"We'll see," he said. "Stay tuned."
Brown's opponents have taken notice.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said Brown's repeated references to jobs "got us scratching our heads ... When he goes out there and speaks to schools and stuff, he's talking about education. Why he's pirouetting off that, I don't know."
The group, which has long argued the measure would hurt the economy, released a radio ad Tuesday calling Proposition 30 "just another tax increase that'll ... drive people and businesses out of California and make families poorer."
Brown has suggested his initiative not only could have a direct impact on jobs -- protecting public sector employees with additional tax revenue -- but also broader economic gains attributable to an educated work force.
"If we invest in our schools, we get enhanced skill and creativity, and that leads to new jobs, new products and economic well-being," Brown said in Fresno. "So it's not just about hiring a few more teachers or avoiding a few more layoffs. It's about the economic and social fabric of California."
Coupal said "there's legitimacy to a better-educated work force helping employment," but he and other critics said it is not increased spending, but government reforms, that are required to improve education.
The economy has been the most significant issue to California voters for more than four years, according to polling by the Public Policy Institute of California, with education and schools far behind. The issue cuts across party lines, and could be significant to Brown in the more conservative reaches of the state, including the Central Valley.
"It's going to resonate with the people," Kevin Cole, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 100, said at Brown's campaign stop in Fresno. "It's going to resonate with the blue-collar worker."
Several prominent local officials, businessmen and politicians stood with Brown on Tuesday afternoon at the training center in southeast Fresno. Among them: developer Tom Richards, Granville Homes President Darius Assemi, Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell, Fresno City College President Tony Cantu, Fresno Unified Trustee Carol Mills, Rep. Jim Costa and Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, both Fresno Democrats, as well as state Sen. Michael Rubio, a Bakersfield Democrat.
Those locals who spoke echoed Brown's message that Prop. 30 is vital for both education and the state's economy.
"We cannot continue on this downward spiral of cuts to education," Cantu said.
Richards noted that there are two things the business community doesn't like: higher taxes and high government spending.
But he said Brown and his administration have been doing all they can to reduce spending, and he said that "nothing speaks more to strength and vitality" in California than an investment in education.
Bee staff writer John Ellis contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (916) 321-1215, email@example.com or @davidsiders on Twitter.