Time for Brown to Take a Stand on the Budget

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the major candidates for governor were asked to answer a single question: How would you deal with California’s budget problems?

Republican Steve Poizner: “Cut taxes and freeze spending.”

Republican Meg Whitman: “Rein in state spending and fire 40,000 government workers.”

Democrat Jerry Brown: “Well, since I’m not an official candidate for governor at this point …”

That answer’s getting old. There’s no one in the state, including the guy sitting in the attorney general’s office in Oakland, who isn’t convinced that Jerry Brown is running for governor.

Sure, the campaign account in the secretary of state’s office is called “Brown for Governor 2010 Exploratory Committee,” but any “exploratory” questions about a run for governor were answered long before Brown set up that committee last September. He told KGO radio in San Francisco Thursday that he has about $12.5 million in the bank for the race, which is a mighty official sounding pile of cash.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, the lone announced Democrat in the race, was so convinced Brown was in that he dropped out. And the Democratic Governors Association is so sure Brown’s the one that they’re getting ready to open an independent expenditure committee to help boost his campaign.

So, once again Mr. Attorney General, how would you deal with California’s budget problems?

It’s not a subject any candidate can ignore this year. While Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed the new budget, whoever is sitting in the governor’s state capitol office next January is going to have to live with whatever finally gets passed.

The proposed budget “includes reductions that sometimes are draconian,” Mac Taylor, the state’s legislative analyst, said in an overview of the budget released earlier this week. He also warned that “the Legislature faces incredibly daunting challenges in balancing the budget.”

Democrats hold a majority in both the Assembly and state Senate. Shouldn’t they know where their candidate for governor is willing to cut the budget, what programs he will fight for and how he stands on financial questions that will affect life in California for years to come?

Politically, it makes plenty of sense for Brown to delay making an official campaign announcement.

With no opposition in sight and a mid-March filing deadline, Brown can spend the time wearing his AG hat, making public—pleasing announcements about, say, suing electronic cigarette makers, settling Medi-Cal fraud cases against huge drug companies and filing suit against a car wash for discriminating against workers.

And while that $12.5 million sounds like a lot to people living in the real world, both Poizner and Whitman are mega-wealthy sorts who each have written $19 million checks to their campaigns, with more undoubtedly to come. Delaying a campaign rollout saves money and Brown’s going to need every dollar.

Besides, with Poizner and Whitman poised to spend millions tossing mud balls at each other from now until the June primary, why not sit quietly on the sidelines and watch the fun for as long as possible?

But the Legislature is on a fast track for budget action, with Schwarzenegger and Taylor arguing that a plan, any plan, absolutely needs to be passed by March. Committee hearings on the budget are being set and politicians and interest groups are drawing battle lines.

And the voters, weary onto death of hearing yet again about more deficits, more cuts and more problems stretching years into the future, would like to know right now what their leaders – their future leaders – plan to do about it.

It doesn’t even have to be Jerry Brown, a by-God official candidate for governor, who answers that. Attorney General Brown, one of California’s highest-ranking public officials, as well as one its best-known political leaders, already has plenty of reasons to be heard on California’s fiscal future.

But the budget discussions are happening now. The deals will be cut soon. If Brown wants to lead, the time to take a stand is now.

So, Mr. Brown, how would you deal with California’s budget problems?

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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