Jerry Brown’s Dismal Budget Play Alienates Democrats

California’s governor was supposed to join left and right and get his state’s budget under control. Joe Mathews on how Brown has failed on all counts.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters-Landov

Jerry Brown's argument for his return to the California governorship was that as a 73-year-old politician, too old to worry about his political future, he would throw caution to wind, force partisans of left and right to negotiate, and tame this state’s famously out-of-control budget.

But his first six months in office have looked nothing like this. Brown’s experience has been no match for the difficult task that confronts Democrats in Washington and around the country: how to, at a time of austerity, protect programs and secure more taxes in the face of opposition from anti-tax Republicans. Brown has made concession after concession—cutting billions, agreeing to negotiate new legal limits on spending and pensions—without securing any agreement for additional revenues, even temporary taxes that would be subject to a vote of the people. In the process, he has alienated his own party.

Brown’s story so far shows that low-key negotiation and concession does not get you much from Republicans in this era. The governor, strangely for someone with seemingly little to lose, has stuck to the same strategy – negotiating with Republicans in return for the possibility of temporary taxes – and generally behaved with the hyper-caution befitting a candidate for Pope. Instead of loudly confronting Republicans, he has kept such a low profile that more than one-third of Californians tell pollsters that they don’t know enough to have an opinion of the job he is doing.

While Brown’s veto of the state budget this week—the first such rejection in modern California history—was described by some commentators and bold, the veto in fact demonstrated Brown’s caution—and his growing weakness and political isolation.

Brown’s problem goes beyond his own political strategy. California’s infamously complicated fiscal rules, especially its requirement of a supermajority vote in the legislature for taxes and fees, require Brown to get votes from Republicans, even though Democrats control the governorship, both houses of the legislature, and every other statewide office. (The GOP has a smaller minority in the California legislature than the Wisconsin Democrats, who GOP Gov. Scott Walker has turned into roadkill).

Pretty much since he took office, Brown has been prodding, charming, and cajoling Republicans in hopes of getting votes. He’s also made a fetish of austerity, cutting his office, eliminating state cars, and cutting back on cell phones for state workers in big press announcements. A handful of GOP legislative moderates have stepped forward and conducted talks, but when agreement has seemed close, they’ve often increased their demands. (One list included 53 changes). Brown has been unable to secure even a vote from the GOP that would give voters the chance to sign off on taxes.

After months of talks that strategy failing to produce any results, legislative Democrats decided there was no point in waiting any longer. So at last week’s constitutional deadline, they passed their own budget, replacing the taxes Brown had wanted from Republicans with spending cuts and a host of accounting gimmicks that have become a familiar part of California budgets.

But Brown wasn’t willing to give up on his fruitless talks with Republicans. The governor, without giving legislators of his party warning, issued his veto the morning after budget passage. Democratic legislative leaders, clearly frustrated, called a press conference. And in the tone in which one discusses a doddering old uncle who has just mooned the neighbors, the lawmakers said that the septuagenarian governor didn’t understand that his strategy of getting a deal with Republicans had failed.

Brown, said Darrell Steinberg, the top Democrat in the state Senate, is “a little bit confused.”

Other voices, less kind, suggest Brown is gutless. Republicans, ungrateful despite Brown’s concessions, say they couldn’t reach a deal with Brown because the governor did not have the courage to embrace new limits on spending and pensions that the GOP wants in the agreement—but that powerful public employee unions oppose.

Democrats and unions counter that Brown has been too quick to embrace Republican calls for austerity and too reluctant to explain in stark terms the damage to state programs that will ensure without more tax revenue. Democrats fear that if there is a deal with the GOP, voters will turn down the tax extensions Democrats want, but approve the GOP’s spending and pension limits. To sharpen the message, Senate Democrats, after the budget veto announced that they would hold no hearings on Brown’s nominees for state jobs—an unkind thing to do to a governor of their own party.

Brown, in press conferences, brushes off such criticism. He says his strategy, with temporary taxes, simply needs more time to work, though the conventional wisdom is that OJ Simpson may find his ex-wife’s “real killers” before Brown finds four Republican votes for taxes.

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The veto gives Brown more time to search for Republican votes for his tax extensions. But given the dysfunction of California’s budget process and the divide between the parties, one wonders why he bothers. It’s far clear how Brown could get a budget much better than the one he just vetoed. If Brown keeps pursuing his strategy into the summer to no avail, Californians may start asking not only why their budget is late but also whether their governor has passed his personal sell-by date.