Money Fight Just Beginning for Governor Brown

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

When Fullerton Mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva finally declared victory over Republican Assemblyman Chris Norby Thursday, it gave the Democrats a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the Legislature for the first time since 1883.

But even as those final votes were being counted in Orange County, it’s not hard to imagine Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown rooting very quietly for a GOP win.

As former Gov. Gray Davis learned in 1999, when he took over California’s top job after 16 years of Republican governors, it’s your friends, not your enemies, you really need to worry about.

Just as those Democrats more than a decade ago decided they had a mandate to roll the party’s wish list through the Legislature, there already are rumblings about the wonderful things that can happen now that Democrats hold the whip hand in Sacramento.

A chance to put new tax measures on the ballot! Enough votes to make the social and political changes Democrats have been dreaming of! More money for cash-starved state programs! And, most ominously, a veto-proof majority in case the governor gets uppity.

While it’s an exciting time for California Democrats, Brown can be forgiven if he doesn’t join the celebration.

The governor won the big one last week when he – with plenty of help from Barack Obama and online voter registration — pushed the Prop. 30 tax increase over the finish line. And he got a welcome bonus this week when Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor declared that the state was looking at a $1.9 billion deficit at the end of the fiscal year in June – down from last year’s $13 billion – and surpluses for years after that.

“For the first time since about 2001, we actually show us being in the black,” he said.

Of course, that’s if nothing changes from the hard-times budgets Brown has negotiated the past two years and good luck with that.

The governor has pledged to limit state spending and pay down debt in an effort to solve, once and for all, the state’s long-running budget problems. And Democratic leaders are making all the right noises about keeping a tight grip on California’s pocketbook.

Make that mostly the right noises.

The anticipated surplus “opens opportunities to plan for the future with three important goals: pay down debts, set aside resources for unforeseen economic downturns and reinvest in public and higher education, health and human services and public safety,” state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said in a statement Wednesday.

“Reinvest,” by the way, is political-speak for “spend more on.”

While Democrats can’t overplay their hand, Steinberg added in an interview, “we also don’t want to underutilize the chance we have to continue to help California grow and thrive.”

Steinberg is one of the more moderate Democrats. But he and Brown are going to have to deal with others in the party looking to make good on years of unfulfilled promises.

State Sen. Ted Lieu is talking about a measure to triple the vehicle registration fee, aka the car tax, and use the money for highway improvements. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano may resurrect his bill to adjust Prop. 13 so that businesses can be reassessed more often. Steinberg himself has talked about the possibility of putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would overturn Prop. 8 and once again allow same-sex marriage in California.

In an article that’s streaked across the state’s Democratic blogosphere, Robert Cruickshank, a well-known progressive writer and blogger, argues that it’s “use it or lose it” for the Democratic supermajority.

Arguing that the Democratic left now holds the power in the party, he wants legislators to push for bold progressive programs like single-payer health insurance, new tax revenue for schools and universities, same-day voter registration, changes to Prop. 13, more government hiring for job creation and a variety of constitutional changes, including adjustments to the initiative process.

Go through the Legislature and you’ll find that just about every Democrat has his or her own idea of what the state “absolutely needs” now that their side has the clout. Add to that the unions and other Democratic allies who spent mega-millions to support Prop. 30 and it’s easy to see that Brown’s problems are just beginning.

A plus for the governor is that many of his party’s most ambitious plans will have to go on the ballot and voters who just agreed to boost their taxes aren’t likely to relish anyone coming back for another bite.

A number of the newest legislators, like Fullerton’s Quirk-Silva, also won tight races in districts that are anything but a guarantee for Democrats in 2014 or 2016. They aren’t going to be anxious to step too far out on any fiscal limbs.

But while Brown warns of the need to cement that long-term fix for California’s financial troubles, he knows that money also is going to have to be spent elsewhere. The state’s infrastructure needs – highways, dams, bridges, buildings, parks and just about everything else — have been neglected for years. Important social programs have been trimmed to the bone and beyond. Higher education has been starved. Investments – and yes, that still means more money – have to be made in plans and programs that look ahead for the state and its residents.

Brown won the Prop. 30 battle. But the war for the state’s future continues.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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