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California

Jerry Brown’s burden of consistency

Capitol Journal

An honest state budget still eludes Gov. Jerry Brown, but he has acquired one priceless commodity: a reputation for consistency.

Conviction and commitment. Says what he means, means what he says.

That’s an invaluable asset for a political leader. It tends to make him believable, credible, respected.

It also can be a drag on leadership. It may render him inflexible, immobile, even stubborn.

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How, for example, can we praise Brown for following his conviction and vetoing a gimmicky budget while condemning Republicans for adhering to their pledge not to renew tax hikes?

Why should a Democratic governor’s philosophical commitment be held in higher regard than a Republican legislator’s?

Apparently it’s not by Democratic lawmakers.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) declared they were “deeply dismayed by the governor’s decision” last week to veto the fiscally flawed budget that lawmakers had passed only the day before.

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They passed it just in time to beat a constitutional deadline and preserve their salaries and expense money. That is, if state Controller John Chiang still cuts their checks after Brown decreed the budget to be unbalanced and taped together with “legally questionable maneuvers, costly borrowing and unrealistic savings.”

Chiang probably should pay up. “Balance” is in the eyes of the beholder, and its determination, in this case, is likely outside the controller’s jurisdiction.

“Completely unnecessary,” Pérez said of Brown’s veto.

Steinberg asserted that “the governor is really getting caught up, and frankly a little bit confused, between total victory … and progress” against California’s perennial red-ink budgeting.

It sounds like Steinberg and Pérez are a little confused. But that may be understandable. They — like all but a couple of legislators because of term limits — have never experienced a consistent governor whose words could be banked.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to “tear up the credit card and throw it away” but went on a borrowing binge. He adamantly opposed raising taxes, until he raised them. Gov. Gray Davis had feet of clay and was shoved around by liberals.

What dismayed me was that Steinberg and Pérez were dismayed by the governor’s veto. After all, Brown had been declaring for months that he wasn’t going to put up with Sacramento’s old smoke and mirrors.

At his inauguration, Brown promised a “painful” but “honest budget.” Later, introducing his spending plan, he warned that if Republicans refused to renew the taxes, spending cuts would be “draconian.” In his State of the State Address, he declared that “kicking the can down the road, by not owning an honest budget, is simply out of the question.” Etc.

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But last Monday, many legislators were misled by some news media misinterpretation of the governor’s remarks at a news conference. That may be because he does tend to talk in riddles.

Brown was asked whether he’d sign a non-tax budget that some would consider gimmicky. “I’m going to take a good hard look at it,” he answered. “I’ve told [Democratic leaders] the way I see things, and we’ll see what happens when they bring it down.”

But, a reporter reminded him, he’d always said he wouldn’t sign a gimmicked-up budget. “That’s true,” Brown replied.

“So what has changed?”

“Nothing has changed. I just don’t give you all my strategies before I implement them.”

Out of that exchange came headlines like this in the Sacramento Bee: “Jerry Brown opens door to gimmicks budget.”

What Brown really was saying was that he’d take a “hard look” to see if anything was salvageable from the Legislature’s offering. But, no, he hadn’t softened his opposition to sleight-of-hand budgeting. He just wasn’t going to telegraph his next move.

Actually, Brown was doing the Legislature a favor. By cooling his rhetoric, he wasn’t throwing marbles in the lawmakers’ path as they marched to the pay window, trying to get there ahead of a new law that would deny them compensation for every day they missed their budget deadline.

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The governor knew what he was going to do.

One, Brown has been around long enough to spot a fat pitch he can knock out of the park. That’s just good politics.

Two, he had no other valid option from the standpoint of good public policy.

“If I went along with that budget,” he told reporters, “then next year and the year after we’d be in the same damn mess. And I am committed to avoiding that.”

He vowed, “I’m not going to break my campaign pledge.”

Darn campaign pledges. Bearing the cross of consistency.

Brown already was burdened with a campaign promise to give voters veto power over any tax increase. That violates American democracy’s principle of representative government, but it helped get him elected.

So Brown has backed himself further into a corner and is running out of time. Two-year-old sales and car tax hikes are scheduled to expire July 1. After that, the higher rates no longer can be “extended.” They’d have to be “raised,” a much harder sell to voters.

And the new fiscal year begins July 1. It would — or should — be embarrassing for the new/old governor not to possess a budget by then, a la Schwarzenegger.

“We’ve met our deadlines,” Steinberg fumed. “The governor’s deadline is July 1.”

What’s a committed politician to do?

Republicans should accept the immediate tax extensions and allow voters to weigh in later, in exchange for also offering them spending and pension reforms. Then declare victory.

Brown should be a little less consistent and tolerate a few relatively innocuous gimmicks — while rejecting the smelliest — in order to gain an on-time budget. And he needs to press Democrats and unions on spending and pensions. Bend a little and head out on a victory tour.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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