Jerry Brown captured the governor’s office for Democrats at the same time voters entrusted his party with broad new authority over state finances, changing the Constitution to sideline Republicans in the effort to climb out of the budget abyss. But that will not necessarily free California of political gridlock.
It is true that Brown and Democrats will be able to jam through their own spending plan without GOP votes if they choose to; passage of Proposition 25 allows lawmakers to pass budgets with the simple majority that Democrats command. It will no longer be necessary that two-thirds of the Legislature approve.
In that way, Tuesday’s vote “is a tectonic shift,” said GOP strategist Adam Mendelsohn. “Republicans are going to have to think seriously about how to reestablish their relevance.”
However, Brown will have to navigate a Capitol in which other Democrats do not necessarily share his views on how to balance the state’s books.
Legislative leaders have been talking for months about trying to regain lost ground, aiming to restore spending on social services, healthcare and education programs that have been scaled back during the prolonged fiscal crisis. They are panicked that temporary tax hikes approved by voters two years ago will expire soon, meaning less revenue. They want new levies on oil companies and other businesses to fund their agenda.
Brown is wary of all that.
“The electorate is in no mood to add to their burdens,” the governor-elect told reporters Wednesday after defeating Republican Meg Whitman, 53.6% to 41.3%. The only clear plan he has articulated is to limit spending, even when the economy rebounds.
“It’s very challenging when the economy comes back and money starts flowing in; there are multitudes who want to get their hands on it,” Brown told The Times on Sunday, in a meandering interview on his campaign plane.
His job, he said, would be “to hang on to a more modest spending framework…. We’re not even close to that yet, because all we’re talking about is managing the less. But at some point you have to manage the more.”
Asked if the passage of Proposition 25 would help put state finances on track, Brown said: “Not clear.” He pointed out that Democrats could use it to go on an unhelpful spending binge, forcing him to break out the veto pen.
For Brown and other Democrats, their new power over the budget means that they alone can be held accountable for the state’s dysfunction — no more blaming obstructionist Republicans for holding the budget hostage until their demands are met.
And the public wants things to get better fast. Californians have lost patience as the economy has continued to flounder, the mind-numbingly large state deficit has persisted, and Sacramento has appeared paralyzed.
“If things don’t work out well and people’s lives don’t get better, the public knows who to take it out on,” said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which handicaps state political races.
Well, mostly. Democrats still won’t be able to raise taxes without agreement from some Republicans; a two-thirds vote requirement remains in place for that. Brown has said, in any case, that he wouldn’t approve tax hikes unless voters did. And voters made an additional constitutional change Tuesday that took away the Legislature’s ability to impose billions of dollars in fees on businesses with a simple majority vote, raising the threshold to two-thirds.
The governor-elect talks about the budget mostly in generalities, focusing on the need for all stakeholders to come together, make sacrifices, recognize that difficult years lie ahead. Among his few concrete policy proposals is an uncontroversial call to shift power away from Sacramento and back to the local level — putting more decisions about how to allocate tax dollars into the hands of cities, counties and school districts.
Brown also says he hopes to abandon a long-running Capitol practice of negotiating the budget with legislative leaders and leaving most of the rank-and-file out of the process until voting time.
“It’s incumbent on every legislator to offer their own ideas and suggestions on how to balance the budget,” he said earlier in the week.
On Wednesday, he said, “I didn’t create this mess. I haven’t been there for 28 years. But I’m going to do everything I can to make it better.”
“My job,” he said, “is to try to sow some unity and clarity out of the muddle and division.”
Yet Brown’s refusal to bend to political protocol when he was governor decades ago led to constant confrontations with his fellow Democrats. Later, he led those same Democrats as chairman of the state party — but then as mayor of Oakland and in his current job as state attorney general, he veered between practical problem-solver and political opportunist.
No matter the post he has occupied, Brown has always seemed to have his eye on an office other than the one he was in. When he was governor, he was distracted by his presidential bid. As attorney general, he aimed to reclaim the governor’s office. Now 72, he says this is the end, and his focus is on restoring California to its past grandeur.
Lawmakers may be in for a wild ride.
“Democrats are supporting [Brown], but the ones who have been around long enough know not to expect him to be very good to them,” said Bruce Cain, professor of political science at UC Berkeley. “He’s unorthodox.”
Halper reported from Sacramento and Mishak from Oakland.