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In new era, Brown has the clout to corral Legislature

As budget-negotiating season opens, the governor is preaching 'prudence, not exuberance,' and he holds the strongest hand.

May 15, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Asked for his “gut reaction” to the legislators who are advocating restoration of welfare programs chopped during the state's fiscal crisis, Brown replied: “No. The money is not there.”
Asked for his “gut reaction” to the legislators who are advocating… (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — Dynamics have shifted dramatically in California's Capitol since Gov. Jerry Brown returned two years ago—both fiscal and political dynamics.

The two are intertwined. And Brown is the beneficiary.

In short, because the state's fiscal health is being restored—in no small part because of Brown—he is in a much stronger position to deal with the Legislature.

Essentially, the governor now needs the Legislature much less than it needs him.

Brown referred to this ground-shifting in a comment toward the end of his budget news conference Tuesday.

A reporter asked the governor whether he was concerned that fellow Democrats in the Legislature would ignore the fiscal discipline that he's preaching and plunge the state back into deficit spending.

"Everybody wants to see more spending," the governor replied. "That's what this place is. It's a big spending machine. You need something, come here and see if you can get it. Well, I'm the backstop at the end, and I'm going to keep this budget balanced."

But, he was reminded, not only can budgets these days be passed on a simple majority legislative vote—because of a 2010 ballot initiative—Democrats currently hold a two-thirds majority, which would allow them to raise taxes without Republican support. That makes it easier to push for spending hikes.

"They can push," Brown said. "And I can push back. At the end of the day, they need a governor's signature. That's a little different" from two years ago.

Back then, he continued, "I said, 'Can you make the cuts? Can you vote [for] a tax?' Today, they are saying, 'Can you sign the bill?'

"Big difference."

Two years ago, Brown was begging Republicans to help place a tax increase on the ballot. They refused. So Brown did it himself, raising political money to collect voter signatures for the Proposition 30 tax hike and get it passed last November.

Also for two years, Brown cajoled and coerced Democrats to drastically cut back on welfare and healthcare, which they did to fill a $26-billion deficit hole. He doesn't need to do that anymore. The governor merely needs—he thinks—to hold the line on repairing the safety net that was shredded during the recession.

"We have climbed out of a hole," he said. "But this is not the time to break out the champagne…. It's a call for prudence, not exuberance."

Democrats, with their supermajority, could override a gubernatorial veto. But that's only theory. It could be political suicide for Democrats who hold competitive seats to override a governor in order to increase spending. They could be dumped by voters at the next election.

A reporter asked the governor for his "gut reaction" to those advocating restoration of chopped welfare programs. "No," he replied instantly. "The money is not there."

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is hoping there's more there than Brown claims. He and other Democrats are anxiously waiting for nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor to weigh in on the governor's revised budget proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Brown contended that an unanticipated revenue windfall is probably a one-time phenomenon caused by wealthy people shifting their tax liabilities into 2012 to avoid a feared federal tax increase in 2013. Also, he said, economic recovery has been slowed by federal tax changes taking more out of workers' paychecks.

So the governor reduced proposed general-fund spending for the next budget year by $1.3 billion, down to $96.4 billion.

"I have real questions about some of the economic assumptions that went into the [budget] revision," Steinberg told me. "Maybe the legislative analyst will rescue us."

Meanwhile, Brown clearly is enjoying the time of his life at age 75, in his 11th year and second stint as governor, having served parts of six decades in elective office.

That was evident at the news conference as he bantered with reporters, gesturing nonstop, his voice repeatedly rising to a crescendo. Relaxed. And ever the contrarian.

It's practically unimaginable that he wouldn't run for reelection next year, especially since no major challenger is on the horizon.

But for now, it's the opening of the budget negotiating season. The Legislature must pass a balanced budget by June 15 to keep getting paid.

Brown is playing the role of both populist and pragmatist.

When a reporter asked him about an oil severance tax that some Democrats are advocating—California is the only major oil producing state without one—Brown replied: "Look, we just got a nice tax [Prop. 30], and I think we ought to take a deep breath and show how we are spending it in a wise way before we start looking around at ways to fill up with more money.

"By the way, those people who talk about an oil tax—good luck." In 2006, oil companies spent almost $100 million to beat a severance-tax initiative. "Ideas that in the abstract may seem appealing, when you put them on the ground, they don't work quite as well."

Ironically, it was a Republican—Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway of Tulare—who Tuesday called Brown "the adult in the room."

Brown does want one major thing from the Legislature: approval of his "rob Peter to pay Paul" school funding proposal to spend more money on poor students and non-natives struggling with English—at the expense of all other kids.

Democratic leaders are OK with the concept, but not the details. Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) have their own wish lists of bills they're anxious for Brown to sign.

The bargaining begins. And Brown enjoys—really enjoys—the strongest hand.

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