Bill Whalen

In California: Is Jerry-Atrics Getting Old?

Once he signed the new state budget on the last day of last month – on time, for a change, but based on some shaky revenue estimates – it was back to business as usual for California Gov. Jerry Brown.

And for Brown, that means signing or vetoing measures forwarded by the State Legislature.

Befitting a politician whose style is unpredictable, to be charitable (adjectives like “quirky” and “flaky” also have been lobbed his way), Brown’s bill-signing record has been . . . well, unpredictable.

He’s done the expected – signing a law mandating the teaching of gay history in California schools (details here). He also threw his fan base for a loop by vetoing a“card-check” bill sought by his old allies, the United Farm Workers – the same UFW ofCesar Chavez fame that backed Brown in his earlier gubernatorial runs back in the 1970’s.

Californians could be in store for more surprises in the coming weeks. A bill grantingcollege financial aid for illegal immigrants awaits his action. So does a measure mandating that California’s 55 electoral votes automatically go the winner of the presidential popular vote (its political implications previous discussed here).

But by summer’s end, so too ends Brown’s opportunity to make news by issuing legislative yeas and nays. Then, its back to implementing his agenda.

Begging the question: what exactly is Jerry Brown’s agenda?

Brown’s State of the State Address, delivered at the end of January, was a one-note symphony: solving the state’s budget deficit. The closest he came to a broad policy agenda was this closing passage:

Yes, I will work with you on the issues–from water and realignment to healthcare and prisons, to agriculture, schools, environment and transportation. We must also face the long-term challenge of ensuring that our public pensions are fair to both taxpayers and workers alike.

Finally, at a time when more than two million Californians are out of work, we must search out and strip away any accumulated burdens or unreasonable regulations that stand in the way of investment and job creation.

But let’s not forget that Job Number 1 – make no mistake about it – is fixing our state budget and getting our spending in line with our revenue. Once we do that, the rest will be easy–at least easier because we will have learned to work together and earned back the respect and trust of the people we serve.

Doesn’t tell us much, does it? So let’s go back a little further, to Brown’s inaugural address delivered on the third day of the New Year:

Aside from economic advance, I want to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure that our schools are places of real learning. Our budget problem is dire but after years of cutbacks, I am determined to enhance our public schools so that our citizens of the future have the skills, the zest and the character to keep California up among the best . . .

. . . In the coming year, we will grapple with the problems of our schools, with our prisons, our water supply, its reliability, and our environment. We will also have to look at our system of pensions and how to ensure that they are transparent and actuarially sound and fair—fair to the workers and fair to the taxpayers.

So how do those passages translate, in real time? Education improvements seemingly are at a standstill – California’s public schools waiting to see if promised funding actually materializes next year. The Golden State must resolve the contradiction of overcrowded prisons, tougher sentencing laws and scant budget resources. That promised water plan? Dry as dust.

The good news for Brown: he doesn’t lack for choices in terms of the next big push. The bad news for Californians: he may or may not have it in him.

Consider, for a moment, what’s occurring in other states analogous to California. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (like Brown, both newly elected and the son of an earlier Democratic governor) convinced a reluctant State Legislature to adopt ethics reform, a property-tax cap, and legalize same-sex marriage.

His next push: reviving New York’s economy, in particular the upstate jobs climate.

Next door in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie – fresh off a huge win on pension reformand raising eyebrows with a July 25 trip to Iowa – says school reform is the next “big thing” – he wants to institute merit pay, expand charter schools, provide vouchers for private schools and strip away rules that protect senior teachers during layoffs, regardless of merit.

Brown can wait until next January and the next State of the State speech to introduce his next “big thing”. Or he can take advantage of the interim to signal a new direction.

Back in early 1994, for example, then-Gov. Pete Wilson organized a Los Angeles crime summit, to discuss public-safety reform. It led to a busy year of crime-related legislation, most notably the “Three Strikes” law.

Brown could hold a summit on the economy, education, budget priorities – he doesn’t lack for options.

I’ll suggest something even more outré for a California Democrat: energy exploration.

There’s precedent here: back in New York, the Cuomo Administration wants to allow hydraulic fracturing – aka, “hydrofracking” – to extract natural gas. What would be more surprising than Brown trying to sell drill-loathing liberals in Sacramento on the idea ofblack gold as the new California gold rush?

This much we know: late last week, Brown vacated the Sacramento fishbowl to go hiking in the Sierra.

In a previous incarnation, California’s governor might have sought safe harbor and enlightenment from his Buddhist friends, not Mother Nature.

But that was Zen, and this is now. And now is the time for Jerry Brown, though not even a year into his second go-round as California’s governor, to demonstrate that as an officeholder, he’s more than a placeholder until someone bolder comes along to revive the Golden State.

(photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

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