Capitol Journal: Confident Brown can have it his way in state budget process

Gov. Jerry Brown definitely rules the roost in California’s Capitol. And on Tuesday he was strutting and crowing and thoroughly enjoying himself.

Unlike previous governors—including his dad Pat Brown a half century ago—Jerry seldom holds formal Q & A sessions with reporters. But when he does, he excels and revels in the give and take.

There he was in the Capitol news conference room—built by his father—conducting a civics class in prudent government budgeting, arms flailing, pointing to big charts with black and red revenue lines steeply rising and falling.

Taking jabs at liberal spenders, his finger aimed at a particular peaked line, the governor proclaimed: “Now, people think when they’re up here that, you know, they’ve gone to heaven and [the line’s] never going down. But it always goes down….


“The truth is there are many good ideas in healthcare, in schooling, in environment, in prison reform, in court expansion, but we only have so much money.”

But: “If you can find more cookies in the jar, hallelujah. I’ll be glad to chew on them.”

Heading into annual budget talks with legislative leaders, there’ll be brief squawking by fryers and hens, but inevitably they’ll fall in line behind the big rooster.

Brown, 76 — in his 12th year as governor, his 30th in elective office—knows the coop like no other bird.

“I think I know my way around,” the governor told other reporters when he later took his show on the road to Los Angeles, mixing the unveiling of a revised $156-billion budget proposal with reelection politics. “And I think a fourth term would be a very unique experience, one of knowledge, one of fortitude and—what’s the other one—perseverance.”

After legislative leaders last week gave Brown his current top priority—agreement on a proposed rainy-day reserve to appear on the November ballot with him—they have little to bargain with during budget negotiations. And that was his plan.

You can expect the Legislature to send the governor pretty much what he proposed Tuesday: A budget that pumps more money into Obamacare to pay for its unexpected rising cost, but otherwise splashes cold water on the Democrats’ spending wish list.

That’s mainly because of a 2010 voter-approved law that allows the Legislature to pass a budget on a majority vote, rather than the old two-thirds requirement that led to perpetual summer-long deadlock and pork trading.


The most potent prod assuring an on-time budget, however, was the sweetener for voters that backers inserted in the law to deprive the lawmakers of their pay and expense money if they didn’t pass the spending plan by June 15.

In 2011, in his first year back as governor, Brown vetoed the Legislature’s on-time budget offering, declaring it recklessly unbalanced. State Controller John Chiang agreed and cut off the legislators’ pay. The lawmakers sued and eventually won a court ruling that all they needed to do to get paid was to pass a reasonably legitimate budget by the deadline.

But that really doesn’t give the Legislature any more muscle, especially in an election year. They don’t want to risk a veto with the governor shouting to voters about how irresponsible his fellow Democrats are with their tax money.

And it doesn’t even have to regress that far. If the Legislature denied the governor his priorities in the budget, he has the line-item veto power to knock out their goodies.


So Brown holds the high perch. And, anyway, this flock seems to lack the courage to challenge him.

But at least one leader, termed-out Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), is getting frustrated listening to Brown crow about how he made the sun rise.

“Sometimes I take umbrage to his, in effect, saying he’s the only one stressing fiscal prudence,” Steinberg told me.

“I’ve been at this since 2009, even before he became governor, and we made unthinkable cuts that still remain. We know we can’t make up for all the pain and all the need out there. And that’s not what we seek. But in a smart, targeted way, we have to make some advances.”


Brown’s answer Tuesday to those who want to spend more on the poor: He’s already doing it by pouring $2.4 billion extra into Medi-Cal for Obamacare coverage.

“Thirty percent of the people in California are now getting health coverage under our Medi-Cal program,” he said. “That is a huge social commitment on the part of the taxpayers of California. It’s important… We didn’t have to do it. And I’m proud we did it….

“To do more, you either have to take it from some other program…or you have to get more taxes. There is no other way around it.”

Brown made it clear he’s against another tax hike.


But time out. There’s some hypocrisy, contradiction and denial here.

That bullet train Brown is pushing has a $68-billion-plus price tag with only $12 billion anywhere in sight, except for some legally suspect cap-and-trade pollution fees he’s trying to tap in the budget.

Asked about that, the governor replied: “Californians drove last year 332.2 billion miles, OK. Some people would say, you know, enough….

“I’d like to take some of that and put them on a train…moving them in a more efficient, more elegant manner…than sitting behind the wheel with all the stress…and all the impact on climate and sprawl and parking lots…"


How about focusing on commuter trains and regional transit? Never mind.

Brown rules the roost and is adamant about also ruling the rails.