Brown, the Budget and Instant Karma
On Dec. 8, 1980, John Lennon was struck down in his prime. California’s governor at the time: Jerry Brown.
Thirty years later, Brown is California’s governor-elect. On the morning of the anniversary of Lennon’s death, he held a budget summit in Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium. That’s also where Jerry’s former chief of staff, Gray Davis, held his second gubernatorial inaugural in January 2003 — for what would turn out to be a brief second term. And, nine months later, it’s where Arnold Schwarzenegger gave an earnest 15-minute speech outlining his 10-point, 100-day plan to alter California’s government landscape and budget process (the latter, an idea that didn’t pan out), en route to his thumping of Davis in the historic recall race.
Let’s hope instant karma doesn’t get governor-elect — not the way it gobbled up the last two guys who visited the auditorium.
The purpose of Brown’s summit (his planners called it a “briefing”) was to discuss California’s bleak financial outlook. That, and a chance to allow Sacramento insiders to do some early venting in what’s likely to be a winter, spring and summer of discontent.
On those fronts: mission accomplished.
State budget experts outlined the list of horribles (the pension obligation is brutal; personal income revenue has flatlined; the state’s even further in the red after this week’s tax deal in Washington; there’s an ongoing problem of California spending $20 billion more than it “earns”). With a Democratic flavor: downplaying the size of the state workforce vs. overall state population; highlighting the deterioration of California’s vaunted K-12 system in matters like pupil-to-teacher ratio.
As for the venting, Democrats want to complaining about painful spending cuts; Republicans want to know why there isn’t further discussion about business incentives. And for those out-of-town visitors: a chance to gripe about what ails their corner of the Golden State.
In all, nothing much of a surprise. So why, then, did the governor-elect decide to do this? Because:
1) He makes good on a campaign promise to engage on the budget sooner rather than later. Coupled with a meeting earlier this week with legislative Republicans, this “open” meeting with state lawmakers and local government officials adds to the impression that Brown is neither a bully nor a hyperpartisan.
2) He starts what will be an uphill climb convincing the public as to the severity of the problem (state analysts say it will be eight years until California employment returns to its pre-recession level). After nearly a decade of Sacramento talking “budget crisis”, only to delay serious reform by resorting to budgetary gimmicks (borrowing, smoke-and-mirror accounting, fuzzy math), Brown must sell folks on the idea that a budgetary apocalypse is nigh — if he doesn’t, there’s no way he can build the pressure it will take to get both Democrats and Republicans to make serious and lasting budgetary concessions.
Arnold might have been able to pull this off during his first year in office — before he gave up on being the next Hiram Johnson. For Jerry, it’s tougher — like convincing someone with a chronic headache that the migraine they think they have is, in fact, a malignant growth that requires immediate, drastic surgery.
3) He lays the groundwork for the inevitable — asking voters for a tax increase, say, as early as next spring. At least twice, during the two-hour auditorium session, Brown referred to California as a “rich state” and the world’s “8th-richest political jurisdiction” (in deference to the state’s world-class economy). That sounds like a guy who soon will be asking rich Californians to dig a little deeper.
Something else I took away from the summit: becoming accustomed to the next governor’s style. After seven years of a governor prone to imagery, for whom English is a second language, Brown is less colorful and obviously less into stagecraft — yet, in his own way, rich in rhetoric. He characterized California’s stagnant job market as “the bottom of the ascendancy”. At the meeting’s end, he declared that “a zone of potential common agreement” exists for cleaning up this mess.
The good news: Brown intends to do more such summits in the weeks ahead. He’ll need to — especially, beyond the bounds of Sacramento. Like I said, it’s a tough sell — both to lawmakers and the people affected by their choices.