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The veto pen of Gov. Jerry Brown

Editorial

There's no telling which bills will pass muster and which won't with California's governor. He's savvy and thoughtful — except when he's not.

September 12, 2011

Gov. Jerry Brown will have a hot pen this month as he signs or vetoes bills passed during the legislative session that ended Friday. There's no telling what will pass muster and what won't, but a look at some of his recent veto decisions reveals our past and present governor as a man with a smart legal mind who usually does the right thing — except when his curmudgeonly evil twin takes over.

Some of Brown's veto messages and other memos are concise masterpieces of legislative wisdom. On AB 412, which allows Santa Barbara County to increase criminal fines to pay for local emergency services, Brown allowed the bill to pass without his signature, writing: "Obviously, these penalty assessments are for good purposes.... Costs of such projects, however, should not be borne by a narrow class of citizens. Those who break the law should be fairly punished for their transgressions, but not be subjected to ever-increasing costs that are more properly the responsibility of the public at large. Sooner or later, we must find better ways to pay for the public goods we truly need." It was an eloquent way to express distaste for the bill while acknowledging that the county can't get by without it.

A similar philosophy prompted Brown to veto SB 28, which would have increased the fines for talking on a cellphone while driving without using a hands-free device. "For people of ordinary means, current fines and penalty assessments should be sufficient deterrent," Brown wrote. Quite right. By the time fees and penalties are tacked on, the current ticket for holding a phone to one's ear costs about $190 for a first offense; the bill would have upped that to around $310. Cellphone conversations do increase the risk of accidents, but it's not at all clear that hands-free devices reduce the risk.

Brown also vetoed SB 888, which would have made it illegal to protest on public property near a funeral. The bill was aimed at the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members picket military funerals to protest American tolerance of homosexuality. The U.S. Supreme Court this year rightly ruled that, offensive as Westboro's protests may be, it has a 1st Amendment right to picket, which Brown noted in his veto message.

And then, just when you think California's leadership is finally getting back on track, Gov. Moonbeam rears his head. Also on the veto list was SB 105, which would have required kids under 18 to wear a helmet on the ski slopes and fined their parents for noncompliance. Skiing is dangerous, and the bill was no more intrusive than a similar (and effective) requirement for bike helmets, yet Brown vetoed it because he was "concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state." That sentiment would sound better on a "tea party" greeting card than a veto message; the bill would have prevented death or brain damage for untold numbers of children.

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