Column: Political Roadmap: There’s a reason why Jerry Brown signs so many bills

Gov. Jerry Brown, signing bills in his Capitol office on Oct. 9, 2015.
(Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

Picture yourself, for a moment, as a member of the California Legislature who wants to get your bill signed into law.

You’ve gotten the help of legislative lawyers, made it through a maze of policy committees and navigated the political crosscurrents of Capitol interest groups.

Now, at long last, the bill is on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown. Lucky you, because he’s pretty generous.


Vetoes really aren’t the governor’s thing.

Of the 1,059 bills sent to him this year, Brown vetoed 159, or 15%. And that was the peak of his pickiness since returning to Sacramento in 2011. Brown’s six-year average veto rate for bills approved by the Legislature is just 13%.

“I’ve always signed more bills, even when I was governor last time,” said Brown in an interview after 2012’s bill-signing season.

That’s a bit of an understatement. In his first go-round, from 1975 until 1982, he seemed to misplace his veto pen altogether. The final year saw him sign 1,674 bills and veto just 30 — a 1.79% veto rate and the lowest of any governor in the last half century, according to state Senate researchers.

Not every human problem deserves a law.

— A Gov. Jerry Brown veto message in 2011, a year where he rejected 14% of the bills sent to his desk

What makes all of this more than just good cocktail party trivia, of course, is that it translates to more California laws that have to be enforced by someone. And followed by everyone.


It’s also a record that’s somewhat at odds with Brown’s finely honed persona of being ever so slightly grumpy about the desire of legislators to excessively tinker.

“Not every human problem deserves a law,” groused the governor in a 2011 veto message killing a bill to impose a $25 fine for any kid caught without a helmet while snow skiing.

Or this pithy comment when vetoing a bill in 2015 to create a new designation for music therapists: “Why have the state now add another violin to the orchestra?”

Still, vetoes are the exception for Brown. And here’s why.

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“There’s a term called comity,” he said during our 2012 chat about bill signings. “It’s a good old word, comity. It’s the respect that one institution, or branch of government, owes to the other. And I follow that spirit.”

Here are two more reasons.

First, Brown works assiduously behind the scenes to shape or ultimately squash proposals he doesn’t like. Many of this legislative session’s biggest accomplishments were the product of weeks or months of private haggling between the governor and various stakeholders. When a deal can’t be worked out, it’s usually because Brown sees the legislation as too costly to a state budget that he prides himself on pruning whenever possible.

And second, Brown is a Democratic governor considering bills by Democratic legislators — thus, there’s not much ideological warfare. Even though he’s still more generous than the only other Democrat to hold the office since the 1960s, former Gov. Gray Davis, it has been Republicans who have racked up the highest veto rates. The record belongs to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in 2008 blocked 35% of the bills that landed on his desk.

Comity notwithstanding, our 2012 conversation left little doubt that in his heart of hearts, Brown remains a skeptic about needing all these new laws.

“If I applied a strict test,” he said, “there would be fewer.”

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