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Bruised by budget battle, Jerry Brown curbs ambitions

California's governor plans to spend the rest of 2011 as a fiscal caretaker, implementing and defending a spending plan that faces court challenges as revenue plummets.

August 17, 2011|By Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times
  • Gov. Jerry Brown, a veteran politician who campaigned on his experience as a political mediator, is still smarting from this years budget battle, in which he failed to get Republican support for tax increases.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a veteran politician who campaigned on his experience… (Hector Amezcua / Associated…)

Reporting from Sacramento -- Jerry Brown may have earned the nickname "Governor Moonbeam" for the futuristic proposals he made as California's chief executive decades ago, but these days he is offering few ambitious policy ideas.

He says the state can't afford them. Instead, Brown plans to spend the rest of the year implementing and defending the austere budget he signed June 30 — a spending plan that is being challenged in court, may be assailed at the ballot box and is already being buffeted by a stubborn recession.

With this year's legislative session set to end next month, the governor sees his role not as chief innovator but as fiscal caretaker, wary of the wave of bills lawmakers will send to his desk and the additional spending they will undoubtedly represent. State tax revenue plummeted more than $500 million below expectations last month, and Californians are facing the specter of deeper cuts in education and social programs.

Brown said he is focused on implementing his plan to shift more state responsibilities to the local level.

"We're allocating the less here instead of handing out the more," Brown said in an interview. "There's a lot of work to be done not in just promoting new things but managing what's already on the table."

Legislative leaders and others say that Spartan approach is politically risky at a time of persistent unemployment and worsening economic fortunes.

"If he doesn't come out with some ambitious, interesting ideas, he runs the risk of becoming largely irrelevant," said Bill Whalen, who was an advisor to former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican.

Having expended most of his political capital on the state budget, Brown has just a few months to regroup before he may have to tackle another deficit — and probably more of the partisan brinkmanship that has characterized negotiations for many years.

"The first year is the best opportunity to make change," said former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who pushed an ambitious education package through the Legislature in his first 90 days. "It's best to seize the moment."

Likewise, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quickly won changes to the workers' compensation system, negotiating a deal to drastically cut premiums paid by employers.

Brown, a veteran politician who campaigned on his experience as a political mediator, is still smarting from this year's budget battle, in which he failed to get Republican support for tax increases. He laments what he calls a "governability crisis."

"What is shocking to me coming back here after 27 years is the hyper-partisan quality of debate," Brown said. "There's not a thread of common purpose."

Meanwhile, patterns familiar from his earlier terms in office are reemerging. As some in Sacramento fret that he's neglecting key policy issues at home — job creation, for example — he's taken to the national stage to share his thoughts on the troubled state of American democracy. Last week, he appeared on CNN's "State of the Union," giving President Obama campaign advice.

Others are filling the policy void.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa came to Sacramento on Tuesday, suggesting a sweeping overhaul of the state's tax code, including Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that limited property tax increases.

"We have to stop aiming low," he said in a speech to the Sacramento Press Club. "We can't let this be an era of limited thinking."

Last month, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a one-time gubernatorial hopeful, unveiled a jobs plan that he said "marks the beginning of a statewide conversation about how we can win again." The proposal, which Newsom is promoting throughout the state, urges consolidation of economic development agencies, streamlining of business regulations and an expansion of manufacturing.

Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) called on Brown recently to use his bully pulpit to champion job creation by boosting the state's embattled $43-billion bullet-train project and promoting an $11.1-billion bond for water infrastructure on next year's ballot.

"We are desperate for leadership as a state and as a country," he said in an interview. "Jerry Brown said at this stage in his life politics wasn't going to derail him. If that's the case, he should … move on to the second phase of his agenda."

But Brown says that passing the budget was only half the battle. Defending it and keeping it balanced are the challenges now.

The spending plan relied on the assumption that a budding economic recovery would bring a $4-billion revenue windfall in this fiscal year. Last week, the state controller said tax revenue was $539 million below the inflated projections. Brown could soon face a backlash if the trend continues.

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