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Jerry Brown Prods 117 Middlepersons To Find Quickest Way To Budget Peace

Paresh Dave |
January 31, 2011 | 9:10 p.m. PST

Executive Producer

Brown's in step number three of a five-part plan.
Brown's in step number three of a five-part plan.

When he dropped the word “unconscionable” into an address to the state Legislature on Monday night, Gov. Jerry Brown cast himself again as the wise old guy who has been around the block and who stands above the divisive labels of Democrat and Republican.

Brown heeded the advice of economists and business leaders who believe that California's green future and economic stability are unachievable without first eliminating a $25 billion deficit. Brown has postponed the California dream many want to see, framing a budget resolution as the highest priority.

“I don't think anyone wants the state to go over the cliff,'' Brown told reporters after his 14-minute State of the State speech. "And the past practice has been obfuscation, smoke and mirrors. What I'm calling for is honesty and boldness."

In presenting the case for his budget proposal to 39 million Californians and 117 legislators, Brown has been quiet and loud, meticulous and off-the-cuff, confident and clashing.

Despite opposition to cuts from Democrats and to taxes from Republicans, Brown could very well succeed--if a few pieces fall into place. He needs two-thirds of the 117 legislators to allow California voters decide on the tax increase extension part of his budget proposal.

His five-part strategy to win approval looks like this:

  1. Once he assembled a small team of advisors, Brown started meeting behind closed-doors with major interest group leaders and lawmakers—a month before he was sworn into office. He traveled to a couple locations across the state for budget town halls that were closed to the public.

    When speaking on the record, he was short on details about his budget plan, only saying that it would be painful.

  2. Brown then released his budget on Jan. 10, matching equal parts tax extensions and spending cuts to close the deficit. As expected, the groups he counseled beforehand applauded Brown's balanced approach.

    Other groups were incensed that Brown would make cuts that target their bottom lines, especially local politicians, who fear the loss of redevelopment agencies that both give them extra power to wield and create jobs they can prop up as campaign tools. There's a chance Brown didn't expect the loud uproar about the redevelopment cuts, but he was prepared for the backlash. He championed the idea of “pain for all.” He's been careful in crafting a populist image, announcing plans to dump unused taxpayer-funded cars and cell phones.

  3. On Monday, Brown made his loudest call yet for alternatives to his budget ideas. Republicans and conservative interest groups opposed to a five-year extension of tax hikes meant to last only two years have yet to detail a $25 billion cost-cutting plan. Even the spending cut proposal of last year's Republican candidate for governor, Meg Whitman, didn't reach that high. She had a plan to save just $15 billion, mostly through laying off 40,000 state workers.

    Democrats are said to be searching for alternative to cuts to services near and dear to them and their local constituencies. How fast they can draft alternative plans on paper with dollar signs that widen Brown's eyes remains to be seen.

    “That's what really striking so far,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. “There haven't been very many other proposals, so Brown said 'This is a chamber of debate, so let's have a debate.'”

    In the absence of any other ideas, Brown told legislators Monday that it would be “unconscionable” for them to block Brown's tax extension plan from reaching voters. Brown has five-and-half weeks to keep hammering that point and to convince two-thirds of the Legislature to let voters decide on the tax plan on a June special election ballot.

    Whalen did criticize Brown for an uninspiring speech and for not using a teleprompter.

    “If his goal is connecting with these legislators and the voters, looking down at a paper for two-thirds of the speech isn't very helpful,” Whalen said. “It's penny-wise but pound-foolish.”

  4. If Brown gets steps one through three done, he'll have to convince voters to support his plan. There's early public support, which is always a good indicator of eventual success, but any major advertising campaign against taxes might trump Brown's expected tour of local communities to stump for his plan.

  5. If Brown gets steps one through four done and voters approve of tax increase extensions, the Legislature would move forward with a series of legislative measures and a budget bill. None of the bills would require Republican support to guarantee passage if Democrats stand together.

    One of the ways he may get the Republican support needed to get a measure on the ballot in the first place is agreeing to deal with them. He could promise to take up the issue of pension reform, which he says he has a plan for, as soon as the budget is signed into law. Many Republicans have seemingly said “We won't touch taxes until you touch public -employee pensions.”

    “Democrats have to figure that wrangling that kind of deal may be the only way to get Republicans on board,” said Ange-Marie Hancock, an associate professor of political science at USC.

    She cautioned that pensions aren't as salient an issue as a $25 billion deficit, so Republicans will also face roadblocks in the court of public opinion.

And that's where Brown's speech on Monday falls into the larger plan described above.

“By calling any political maneuvers to block his plan 'unconscionable,' he's already setting the terms of the debate,” said Jason McDaniel, an assistant professor of political science at San Francisco State University.

McDaniel said Brown's "no-nonsense" approach threatens to undermine any opposition Republicans are able to mount.

“Brown will say they are limiting themselves to partisan politics while he's proposing real solutions,” McDaniel said.

Back on the liberal side of the aisle, Brown won't be afraid to challenge his own party.

“If Democrats are the ones derailing the budget, Brown won't be afraid to call them out,” McDaniel said. “He's not a Democrat, not a Republican; he's Jerry Brown, the governor. He really seems to understands his role.”


To reach reporter Paresh Dave, click here.

Find him on Twitter: @peard33.



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