California tealeaf readers looking for hints on the future of the state budget battle won’t find out much from poring over Jerry Brown’s brief State of the State message Monday night.

In 14 minutes or so, the governor repeated what he’s been saying since he was elected:

1. The state’s in a financial mess and tough action is needed. Right now.

2. Republicans and Democrats legislators are all going to be unhappy with his budget plan, so deal with it.

3. Californians deserve a chance to vote on whether they want more taxes or fewer services.

Add to that some upbeat sentences about making the state “a leader in job creation, renewable energy and state-of-the-art efficiency, innovation of all kinds” and the usual stirring claptrap about how wonderful life will be in the Golden State once this budget unpleasantness is behind us, and the governor had a perfectly serviceable speech that likely didn’t change a single vote in the Legislature.

A little more than a week ago, though, Brown was at his thoughtful best when he tried to sell his budget plan to hundreds of city officials angry at his plan to shut down some 400 redevelopment agencies across the state.

With the state facing a $25 billion shortfall, the budget cuts and tax increases proposed are “a zero-sum game,” he said; if you save one area from cuts or dump a revenue boost, you’ve got to replace it with cuts somewhere else or another source of revenue if you want to keep the budget in balance.

“If we don’t do redevelopment, then what do we do, what do we take?” he asked the crowd at the League of California Cities event in Sacramento. “Do we take more from universities? Do we cut deeper into public schools that have been cut year after year?”

One of the many reasons the state finds itself in this budget mess is that politicians in the past have been unwilling to make the unpopular decisions any zero-sum game requires.

It’s easy to govern when there’s money in the treasury. You can help more Californians, boost spending for schools and other needed services, cut taxes or even rebate money to taxpayers, all popular choices.

It’s a lot less fun when the cupboard is bare and the only decisions are what programs and services to chop.

It’s easy to do what Gray Davis did and try to hang on to the budget status quo and hope for a quick turnaround in the economy. Then there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approach, which was to make bold proclamations about “blowing up boxes” and calling for fundamental change, only to sign budgets based on fantasy financial figures that required a strong and enduring belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

Now Brown is saying that this time for absolutely positively sure the state is going to cleanup that ongoing budget mess.

“It’s absolutely essential that we do our work boldly and without delay,” he said Monday night.

The “without delay” part is key. There’s a reason the governor’s budget plan calls for a June special election that asks voters to extend about $12 billion in taxes and fees for another five years. Without that election – and the support of a majority of voters — the state will have to whack an additional $12 billion from the budget that takes effect on July 1.

That’s the old zero-sum thing again.

The problem is, as Brown is discovering, there’s a quiet constituency in the Legislature for the “kick-the-can-down-the-road” school of budgeting.

California has managed to muddle through for the past few years, the reasoning goes, so why not just put together another phantom budget and see what happens. No hard decisions, no angry constituents or interest groups, no problem.

Of course the whole reason we elect politicians is so they can make those hard decisions. Which means it’s time for them to earn their money.

Budget choices are as much about politics as good government, which the governor recognized Monday when he talked about how he and the legislators “will have to struggle with our conscience and our constituencies” in the budget negotiations.

But as he told those city leaders in Sacramento, “I think we have to, all of us, rise above our own particular perspective … and try to think of California first.”

John Wildermuth is a long-time writer on California politics.