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?'
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."