SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown emerged this week from a month of bill decisions with accolades for temperate lawmaking and fiscal prudence that could serve him well if, as expected, he runs for reelection next year.
There was something for everyone in his signings and vetoes. He liberalized some social policies, blocked some ideas that conservatives disliked and took the middle ground on many other matters.
And nearly a year after persuading voters to pass a $6-billion tax hike, he had the victory that may matter the most: an end to the state’s budget crisis.
As a result, the 75-year-old Brown appears virtually immune to an election challenge next year. And his political strength could help fellow Democrats in the Legislature — nearly all of whose seats will be on the ballot in 2014 — keep their slim two-thirds majority in each house.
Although the state’s fiscal tranquillity gives the governor new room for policy initiatives, Brown’s 2014 agenda is expected to be muted, without flashy proposals to dangle before voters.
“Politically, this is as good as it gets for Democrats,” said Jack Pitney, a former national GOP official and a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “Why risk it by pushing too hard too fast?”
Democrats learned that lesson the hard way more than a decade ago, the last time they both held the governor’s chair and dominated the Legislature, albeit without a supermajority. As the economy roared during the dot-com boom, lawmakers and then-Gov. Gray Davis expanded social services and public employees’ retirement benefits.
Four years later, an energy crisis had gripped the state, deficits were rising and Davis was thrown out of office.
In a recent interview, Brown said he plans to stay his course. He’ll focus on the nitty-gritty work of implementing policies he has already signed into law — on education and prisons, for example — and will keep pushing for a state bullet train, he said.
He will also devote time, and political clout, to unclogging California water policy. The governor wants lawmakers to finish renegotiating a water bond measure, currently scheduled for the November 2014 ballot, to boost the reliability and safety of the state’s water supply.
He is simultaneously promoting a separate plan to build two massive tunnels to divert water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the southern half of the state.
“I think the emphasis has to be on digesting and managing a lot of what we have — high-speed rail, the Delta project’s going to take several years even to get it ready to go, and this whole prison realignment — there’s a lot of work to do there,” Brown said. “This is a big ship to turn. It takes a lot of knowledge and a lot of time. So I’m doing that.”
The slow-and-steady approach could clash with the priorities of Democratic lawmakers, who for years slashed school funds and welfare programs to help rescue the state’s finances. They will almost certainly want to restore those cuts.
Lawmakers and Brown have “worked together to try to get the state’s fiscal house in order,” said David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State. Expensive infrastructure projects “are going to be very difficult for many legislators to swallow” without more money for social programs.
Assembly budget Chairwoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) said the minor boosts to social services this year, such as restoration of adult dental benefits in Medi-Cal, were “not as much as the need out there.”
Next year, Skinner said, there will be more focus on “those core safety-net things that really make a difference in someone’s ability to survive.” One priority, she said, will be a rollback of cuts to Medi-Cal providers, reductions that Brown demanded while the state was still mired in financial crisis.
Still, legislators know there are limits, especially in an election year. And the new class of lawmakers, who can serve all their time in one house under California’s new term limits, does not feel compelled “to solve all the state’s problems” at once, said Assemblyman Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), who won his first legislative seat in 2012.
“We [have] a long-range view toward public policy,” he said.
If California’s economy continues to improve, Brown could restore enough social-service funding to keep Democrats happy, and do so without appearing incautious.
As long as he doesn’t find himself forced by the courts to release thousands of prison inmates to the streets, Republicans have little chance of prevailing against Brown at the polls next year, experts say. And no viable candidate has announced a run.
“There really isn’t much barring him from reelection,” said Bill Whalen of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, who was an aide to former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. “He is just in this incredibly enviable position.”