It’s time for Jerry Brown to give in and get specific

Capitol Journal

Jerry Brown has been around too long, and I say that in a positive way. He has been around long enough to abhor simplistic answers to complex problems.

The patented, predictable “solutions” — rooting out waste, fraud and abuse is especially trite — are soothing to voters’ ears but basically are drivel.

Sure, rid government of waste. What there is. That should be automatic. But it doesn’t begin to solve a budget problem like California’s $19-billion state deficit.

That will require even deeper spending cuts, a meaningful “rainy day” reserve, retooling the roller-coaster tax structure to make it less susceptible to economic highs and lows, generating more revenue and — over the long run — rolling back retirement benefits for future employees.

Add to the list messing with Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax slash that apartment-owner sponsors billed as painless, but has had devastating, unintended consequences. Local governments were forced to surrender power to Sacramento, which has been struggling to keep them financially afloat for 32 years.

Any honest budget fix will require returning control and realistic revenue-raising power to counties, cities and schools.

All this will necessitate gubernatorial leadership, a rational-thinking Legislature and a statewide debate over exactly what the public is willing to pay for.

But any fix-it kit with all the needed tools won’t sell easily to voters. Maybe not at all. So politicians — particularly Republicans — peddle the easy stuff: vague cuts and waste.

Another trite phrase: We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. Try telling that to the kids whose summer schools are shuttered and to the students who have been locked out of public universities.

Pundits like me have been banging on Brown to offer specifics about how he’d fix the state that he once governed for eight years.

After all, it’ll be hard for the Democratic gubernatorial nominee to make the case that many of Republican Meg Whitman’s ideas are impractical and cockeyed — and they are — if Brown doesn’t offer a better plan.

But he has avoided it, and there are three possible reasons:

--The timing hasn’t been right.

--He doesn’t want to stick his head up to be shot at.

--He doesn’t know.

It’s probably all three.

Brown has been able to rationalize that he didn’t have any major opposition for the Democratic nomination and whatever he said either would be ignored or peppered in the GOP crossfire. But now he has the voters’ attention — and Whitman’s.

So his head is up anyway and soon will be the target of sustained fire, right up until the Nov. 2 election.

But I figure the main reason for his silence on substance is that Brown really doesn’t know the answers. More precisely, he doesn’t know the answers that are politically viable, given the polarized public and Legislature.

It gets back to the fact that the more you know, the more you realize that there’s a lot more to learn. It takes a while for this to dawn on rookie governors and term-limited legislators. Meanwhile, they reinvent the wheel and spin it, going nowhere.

Brown, I’m told, thinks that any budget fix he offered at this stage would be total bunkum and DOA politically. He wants, if elected, to spend several months consumed in budget detail, conferring with legislators, union leaders, agency heads and bureaucrats.

The attorney general feels he has preempted Whitman’s most potent issue by pledging not to raise taxes unless voters approve. And that’s just about all the public needs to know, he figures, because it’s really all he knows.

In a news conference Wednesday, Brown said of the broken budget: “We have to look at everything. There’s no sacred cows here. Everything’s on the table.”

He added: “Where would I start? I’d start in the governor’s office. I’d cut as much out of it as I could. I’d go to the legislators, start talking about their perks, the staff.”

Well, that might pick up a few pennies. Then what?

Anyway, Brown knows better. His first move as governor should not be to browbeat legislators to fire staff. Not if he’s seeking conciliation and compromise. The Legislature is a separate branch of government.

For a moment there, Brown was sounding almost Whitmanesque.

Actually, he spent much of the new conference whacking Whitman — after proposing that they participate in a series of civil town hall appearances around California. He began his general election race on a high road and quickly descended into some muck.

Brown needs to pitch voters about why they should return him to the governor’s office after a 28-year absence. And explain why he even wants to go back at age 72.

“He’s got to get some focus on the future,” says veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. “He’s got to make a compelling case why he’s got the skills to do the job. He’s got to demonstrate that he’s going to be different than the status quo — going to be different than what’s going on in Sacramento right now.”

Brown’s campaign manager, Steve Glazer, says: “We put our trust in the voters to see through all the puffery and hollow promises [of Whitman]. She’s as real as a 50-pound Twinkie.”

What about specifics? “In the course of the campaign, he’ll lay out his vision for the state and what he thinks he can do to get California working again. That involves experience and know-how.”

But Brown may have to overcome his dread of substance simplicity. If he doesn’t put some meat on the bones, Whitman just might blow him aside.