As Jerry Brown takes the oath of office Monday for his third term as California governor, he will begin a 100-day sprint that could determine the future success of his administration.
The first 100 days for a governor — often described as the honeymoon period — can set the tone for his entire tenure. It will be particularly true for Brown, who has been clear that he wants to leverage the political capital he has as a relatively new governor — he first served from 1975 to 1983 — into decisive action on the state’s fiscal crisis.
Brown’s predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came into office with a mandate for radical change, made some early missteps that haunted his administration. He agreed to a plan to paper over the deficit with borrowing to get through the first year. Critics say he squandered a huge opportunity to push sweeping budget remedies through the Legislature. When he was ready to take bolder action the following year, the mandate was gone and his proposals were rejected by voters.
There may not be another time in Brown’s governorship when he has this much public goodwill. Schwarzenegger’s popularity rebounded, but never anywhere near the levels it had reached during those first 100 days.
“The deals that Schwarzenegger cut in those budget discussions colored the rest of his governorship,” said Rob Stutzman, who served as Schwarzenegger’s first communications director. “The biggest deal Brown may ever cut may be in the first 100 days of his administration.”
Brown plans to pass a budget through the Legislature within two months, instead of the usual seven or eight. Those involved in budget discussions with him say he then plans to ask voters to extend temporary increases to the state sales, income and vehicle taxes that lawmakers and the governor enacted in 2009. Voters have already rejected an extension of those taxes as part of a 2009 special election, and Republican leaders have indicated there is no GOP support for putting the issue back before voters.
Brown’s main charge will be to keep voters on his side, even as he introduces a series of spending cuts and potential tax increases that are bound to be unpopular.
Already, Brown is promising shared pain and fiscal austerity. Monday’s inaugural festivities will be subdued affairs, with Brown set to take the oath of office at Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium at 11 a.m. In the afternoon, he is scheduled to appear at a gathering outside the Capitol where free hot dogs will be served, before hosting guests at an afternoon reception at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento.
Brown has promised a lean operation to meet the financial times. During his first stint as governor, he said California was entering an “era of limits.” Now, Brown is promising deep spending cuts, including some in his own office. He has already announced the elimination of the state’s inspector general — an office created by Schwarzenegger — and said he would cut his staff by as much as 25% from their current levels.
The first days of a new administration are often among the most productive, in terms of legislative achievement. Schwarzenegger rescinded the vehicle license fee, repealed a state law that would have allowed undocumented residents to receive drivers’ licenses, negotiated a plan to put deficit bonds on the ballot and worked to overhaul the state’s workers’ compensation insurance system.
The governor that Schwarzenegger followed, Gray Davis, ran his 1998 campaign promising to fix the state’s schools. Davis called the Legislature into special session on his first day in office to focus on his top priority, and quickly secured passage of a series of school accountability measures that were initially opposed by the state’s powerful teachers unions.
“This governor doesn’t have that luxury,” said Michael Bustamante, who served as Davis’ press secretary. “The economy, jobs, and trying to be able to grapple with this multi-year, multibillion-dollar problem really is sucking the oxygen out of the room.”
Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, agrees that Brown is in a different situation than his predecessors.
“Usually in the first 100 days we wonder what the governor is going to give us. This time we’re wondering what he’s going to take away,” Pitney said.
But concentrating on the state’s budget could provide Brown a window to strike a deal.
“There is an opportunity to focus attention on the deficit,” Pitney said. “He knows from the experience of other governors that it’s best to get the hard stuff done right away.”
In the months since his November election, Brown announced just two cabinet level appointments — one was Ana Matosantos as his director of finance. Brown has also met privately with budget stakeholders and lawmakers and convened two separate public forums on the state’s budget crisis, laying the groundwork for a special election later this year.
Adam Mendelsohn, a political advisor to Schwarzenegger, says Brown may have an opportunity in the early days of his administration to persuade voters to accept the taxes where Schwarzenegger did not.
“Maybe with a new administration, voters are willing to have an open mind about the solutions,” Mendelsohn said. “But what we found [in 2009] was an electorate that was going to express their frustration with Sacramento any way they could.”
Brown will have to reveal the specifics of his proposal by Jan. 10, when he unveils his state budget plan. But already Republicans have expressed dismay that the budget includes a plan to extend billions in sales, income and vehicle taxes that were set to expire in 2011.
“I had hoped his first move would not be about extending taxes,” said Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway (R-Tulare). “We were told that he was going to cut. I sure would like to see some of those cuts before we talk about extending taxes.”