14 years in, Brown shows no sign of losing political muscle

In his 14th year as California's governor and barred from running again, Jerry Brown is not showing the slightest sign of lame duck syndrome.

In fact, the governor seems to be acquiring more political muscle with age. He's more focused, patient and selective than when he served two entertaining-but-undisciplined terms in the 1970s and early '80s.

The latest example of the governor's muscle-flexing came last week.

Backers of a ballot initiative to extend his 2012 "soak the rich" income tax increase beyond 2018 had proposed not putting any of the added revenue into Brown's rainy-day fund.

The governor created the savings account to hedge against the next recession. More than two-thirds of voters authorized it in 2014.

Not saving some of the proposed tax take, Brown told reporters, "in my judgment is a fatal flaw."

Teachers unions sponsoring the extension knew that if it were opposed by the governor — even if he technically is a lame duck — their ballot measure would be a dead duck. So they quickly amended it to his wishes.

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Brown has been unenthusiastic about the proposal. A year ago, he reminded reporters that he had sold his tax hike to voters as "temporary. And that's my position," he said. But lately he has been noncommittal.

"We heard the governor's concerns," said Gale Kaufman, strategist for the tax initiative. "We look forward to continuing our conversation with him."

Besides any governor's intimidating power to sign or veto bills, one source of Brown's strength is his high job-approval rating among voters: 56%, according to a new Field Poll. Another is a chubby cache of campaign funds — nearly $24 million at last count. He can empty that political arsenal on any ballot measure he chooses. So far he's keeping his powder dry.

He almost certainly will spend some of it fighting a "no blank checks" initiative bankrolled by a native of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The measure would require voter approval of any project with a price tag exceeding $2 billion if it's to be financed by state revenue bonds.

A revenue bond is paid for by beneficiaries of the project, such as water users.

The initiative sponsor is Dean Cortopassi — a food processor whose goal is to block Brown's proposed delta water tunnel project, a $15.5-billion monstrosity. It consists of twin 30-mile tunnels, each 40 feet in diameter, siphoning fresh water from the Sacramento River before it flows through the estuary and pouring it into southbound aqueducts.

Delta farmers and environmentalists complain that the project would destroy a lot of local agriculture in order to save some San Joaquin Valley nut orchards. Plus, it would rob endangered salmon of fresh water and make mountains of excavated mud. Brown and other backers contend the project is necessary to replumb the unreliable delta waterworks, depended on by much of California. The controversial project has been kept alive only because of Brown's persistence.

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"At this stage, as I see many of my friends dying.... I want to get [stuff] done," the governor proclaimed in 2012, using an expletive. "And I'm going to get this done."

Last week, he pitched the tunnels again at a conference of water agency heads.

He asked for some give and take between the water buffaloes and fish lovers. "If we don't get that, then the water wars will continue … beyond the life of probably half the people in this room," he warned.

Outside, talking to reporters, Brown was more adamant: "California will suffer devastating economic consequences" without the tunnels, he said. "This is not a 'nice.' It's a fundamental necessity."

Brown may not always be right — and he himself needs to compromise a lot more on the delta — but he is strongly committed to personal pets. Like the $68-billion bullet train project.

Polls consistently have shown Californians turning against the proposed Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail line. And it would not still be chugging along without the governor pushing.

When the Republican Congress denied more funding and private financiers showed no interest, Brown found state money to sustain the project. He pressured the Legislature into letting him use 25% of the cap-and-trade pollution fee kitty, worth $500 million annually.

Another potential ballot measure is a fat target for Brown's political money. That proposal would blow up the train and spend its funding on water projects.

Regardless of his power, Brown got rolled by moderate Assembly Democrats and the oil industry last summer. They blocked his effort to cut the state's petroleum use in half by 2030.

But he won legislative passage of two other weapons in the fight against global warming: requirements to double the energy efficiency of older buildings and to generate half of California's electricity from renewable sources.

Brown often is criticized privately for failing to use his power, for not engaging enough with legislators and "stakeholders"— the polite name for special interests.

Currently he's trying to break a legislative impasse over how to raise more money for Medi-Cal and highway repairs. When a reporter asked how he intended to do that, the governor admitted he'll have to work harder.

"I increase my role," Brown answered. "I have more conversations."

That's the ticket. Because when this old dog barks, people usually listen. They fear his bite.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 18, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Brown hasn't lost any muscle - CAPITOL JOURNAL" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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