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Gov. Jerry Brown targets his next priorities as he decides on final slate of bills

Gov. Jerry Brown targets his next priorities as he decides on final slate of bills
California Gov. Jerry Brown discusses a bill he is about to sign with Graciela Castillo-Kring his deputy legislative secretary, at his Capitol office in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Capping a year dominated by uncommonly personal and emotional debates in the Capitol, Gov. Jerry Brown ended his work on legislation Sunday by banning the use of "Redskin" for school mascots, refusing to bar Confederate names on public buildings and declining new access to experimental drugs for the gravely ill.

Announcing his decisions on a final cornucopia of bills, the governor also prohibited baseball players from chewing tobacco on the field and made electric skateboards legal, among other actions.

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Brown kept California on a largely liberal path this year, drawing national attention for enacting automatic voter registration at the DMV, imposing more stringent equal-pay laws on employers and allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives with a doctor's aid.

And as the governor reviewed nearly 1,000 bills in recent weeks, he was already looking ahead.

Sprinkled throughout his signing statements and veto messages were clear indications of his next priorities. Brown emphasized his wish to find firmer financial footing for public healthcare; ease voter-approved restrictions on the cost of water in the face of an unrelenting drought; and begin a wide-ranging examination of the state's criminal justice system.

"He's constructing the agenda for the next session," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California. "It feels a lot like Barack Obama's last two years: 'This is what I want, this is what I'm going to do.' "

Brown's turn to future plans followed an uncharacteristically bumpy stretch for the fourth-term governor.

Although lawmakers approved two major planks of the governor's agenda for battling climate change — increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency — they refused to endorse his goal of slashing Californians' gasoline use.

In addition, his efforts to repair the state's deteriorating roads and safeguard publicly paid healthcare with new taxes sputtered.

"He does seem to have gone to battle with the Legislature and not gotten his way on certain key issues," said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State.

The governor needled lawmakers on the impasse over a healthcare tax while vetoing legislation such as proposed expansions of Medi-Cal benefits, saying they would be unwise "until the fiscal outlook … is stabilized."

The tax is a key issue for next year, when California faces the loss of $1 billion in funding from Washington unless lawmakers agree to broaden a levy on healthcare plans so it complies with federal law.

Brown also foreshadowed a potential battle at the ballot box next year. In a statement issued with his signature on legislation, he criticized a 1996 voter-approved law that limits increases in water rates.

The governor left a question mark over his plans on criminal justice issues.

He vetoed nine bills that would have expanded California's criminal code, saying, "We should pause and reflect on how our system of criminal justice could be made more human, more just and more cost-effective."

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State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who would like to see a sentencing commission review California's laws, called the comments "very refreshing."

But it remains unclear what specific changes Brown wants to make, and whether he'll take the lead or leave that up to others.

"Without the governor's leadership, I don't see more than just a few legislators taking the lead on this," Leno said.

The biggest recent changes in California's criminal justice system have come not from the Legislature but through the ballot box with last year's Proposition 47, which downgraded some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

In his decisions this year, Brown displayed an idiosyncratic approach to legislation.

He signed the measure forbidding public schools to use "Redskins" as their teams' name or mascot. The ban, on a phrase considered an insensitive racial slur against Native Americans, will take effect in 2017.

But Brown rejected a bill to prohibit public buildings and parks from carrying the name of Confederate figures.

Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) introduced the measure after a mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., catalyzed a movement to remove the Confederate flag from public buildings.

Brown, in his veto message, said the flag removal was "long overdue." But he said the naming of public buildings was different, an issue "quintessentially for local decision-makers."

"Local governments are laboratories of democracy which, under most circumstances, are quite capable of deciding for themselves which of their buildings and parks should be named, and after whom," Brown wrote.

The governor also made varying decisions about legislation involving end-of-life issues. Last week, he approved a bill allowing doctors to prescribe lethal drug doses to terminally ill patients.

In an unusually personal statement, Brown said he signed the bill after considering "what I would want in the face of my own death."

But on Sunday, he rejected a measure that would have made it easier for Californians with life-threatening diseases to obtain experimental treatments not yet approved by the federal government.

Brown noted in his veto message that the Food and Drug Administration recently streamlined its application process for the terminally ill to receive certain drugs.

"Before authorizing an alternative state pathway, we should give this federal expedited process a chance to work," Brown wrote.

That may not come soon enough for Mike DeBartoli, a former firefighter from Sacramento who was diagnosed with ALS, a fatal degenerative nerve disease, more than a year ago.

DeBartoli called Brown's decision "devastating" and "perplexing," given the governor's support for the assisted death bill.

"If people that want to give up, they can give up now. That's fine, that's their own decision," DeBartoli said. "But for the people who want to try, to not give them a chance?"

Twitter: @melmason

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Twitter: @chrismegerian

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