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Give Brown credit for a good week

The governor-elect laid bare the state's budget trouble, casting blame in all directions. He also made two solid appointments.

December 13, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

From Sacramento — So far, Jerry Brown has been exhibiting the traits of a wizened old pol that led Californians to elect him governor.

He's showing early signs of matching the expectations of millions who concluded he just might be the seasoned sage who can straighten out Sacramento's budget shambles.

True, one transition week does not make a governorship. And Brown, history shows, still is plenty susceptible to screwing up — a wrong turn, a goofy idea, an alienating arrogance.

He hasn't even made a tough decision yet.

But enjoy the moment. And give credit where it's due.

Last week, the governor-elect made two virtually flawless and pivotal moves:

• He hosted an unprecedented pre-inaugural, acrimony-free budget briefing in Sacramento's Memorial Auditorium for hundreds of legislators and local government officials. Actually, it was a horror show.

All the sordid, ugly budget masquerading that Capitol politicians have been participating in for years was illustrated for all to see on huge charts. The many guilty blanched, but no one disputed the facts. There was a rare minimum of partisanship and posturing, and none from Brown.

Fingers were pointed at everyone — none at a single person or even party.

"It's unusual to have your dirty laundry aired," noted one Brown advisor, who asked for anonymity because he wasn't necessarily speaking for the governor-elect. "Everyone feels some culpability. No one likes to confront the bad decisions they've made. So the meeting was very powerful."

• Brown also made two unassailable appointments to critical positions.

He retained Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's state finance director, Ana Matosantos, as his own. She's not flashy. She's not a quote-machine. But she's brainy and budget-wise. And she's not just a nerdy numbers cruncher. She actually relates to humans.

Matosantos, 35, impressed Brown, and that's not easy. He was struck by her no-spin grasp of core, complex budget facts.

There'll be no need for training wheels, as there was for Schwarzenegger's first finance director, a Florida transplant who didn't know squat about California or its politics.

The governor-elect also reached back to his first governorship in the 1970s and recruited a common-sense former aide, Diana Dooley, to lead the state Health and Human Services agency, which is certain to suffer more budget whacks.

Dooley, 59, once was Brown's chief legislative lobbyist. Lately, she has been president of the California Children's Hospital Assn. She knows the health and welfare field. And she knows Brown. So why would she return to his intense, all-hours employ?

"I have tremendous respect for Jerry," she said. "I recognize how his curiosity manifests. People are put off by the intensity of his questions. Sometimes he wants to know more than anyone can provide.

"But I learned when to take him seriously and to recognize when he is doing mental gymnastics out loud."

Added Dooley, who will take a pay cut: "It sounds so cheesy, but at the end of the day, I just couldn't see myself working in an industry that's going to have to make sacrifices and not make some sacrifice myself.

"There must be a way to get out of this [budget] crisis and still retain the base of health and human services. We're dealing with our most vulnerable population. But we do have to make cuts. There's just no question."

Brown's budget briefing was about informing all sides exactly how dire the deficit dilemma is. The incoming governor warned that it's "much worse" than ever.

Everybody thought that the projected deficit for the next 18 months was $25.4 billion. But Matosantos raised it to a possible $28.1 billion.

This was the biggest eye-opener, however: Only 15% to 25% of the agonizing budget-balancing "solutions" of the last three years have worked as expected or provided long-term savings.

In fact, in recent years, there have been $66 billion in "solutions" that either were only temporary fixes or "made the future deficit worse."

Included in the "made things worse" category was the $15 billion in so-called Economic Recovery Bonds that Schwarzenegger charmed politicians and voters into approving in 2004.

Also included is the $1.2 billion sale of 11 state buildings currently underway. The state would wind up paying more in rent than it realizes from the sale.

Word around the Capitol is that Brown is moving toward a special election in June. Voters would be asked to approve an extension of temporary tax increases worth $8.3 billion.

The word is mostly coming from hopeful Democrats and public employee unions desperate for more tax revenue. Brown hasn't yet decided, insiders say. There's a bad history of governors failing with special elections.

Brown would first need to show the public that existing tax money is being spent wisely. And he'd need to keep slashing programs — or at least demonstrate the pain of continued slashing.

Meanwhile, the governor-elect is talking to legislators like adults — listening and not lecturing, shunning the simplistic. And they welcome that.

"What I like about Gov.-elect Brown is that he's real easy to talk to," said Senate Republican Leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga. "You can actually have a two-way dialogue with him. Sure, we won't agree on everything. But he's very open and approachable, and that's what we need today.

"He's certainly a more seasoned and polished politician than I'll ever be."

We'll tune in on Dutton again next month — after Brown proposes his first budget.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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