Legislators Take What They Can Get From Brown

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

You won’t see Gov. Jerry Brown pumping his fist and slapping high-fives with his staff today if the Legislature, as expected, approves his $96.3 billion 2013-14 budget.

After all, as the governor said earlier this week, “I think prudence, rather than exuberance, should be the order of the day.”

And besides, it just wouldn’t be polite to do a football sack dance over the fallen bodies of Democratic legislators.

But Brown could be forgiven a quiet “Woo-hoo” as he watches better than 90 percent of the budget plan he proposed in January become reality.

The governor’s success is a reminder that the art of politics is the art of negotiation. And when it comes to negotiating, experience counts.

It was just a couple of months ago that the governor was drawing a line in the sand over the budget. He vowed to “fight any effort to dilute” his spending plan and warned that his proposal to revamp school spending rules to provide more money to districts with more low-income and non-English-speaking students “was not an ordinary legislative measure,” but a cause.

But after 10 years as governor, Brown is a veteran of the ritualized “kabuki-style” drama of the state budget process, where public statements seldom mean exactly what they say.

Brown went into the budget deliberations with two main goals. First and foremost, he wanted to change the way the state doled out money to its K-12 schools. But the governor also needed to keep his fellow Democrats from spending every nickel of growing state revenue.

The governor went into the budget talks with some advantages. Thanks to Prop. 25 in 2010, it now takes only a simple majority to pass a state budget, taking the GOP minority out of the game.

And with the Big Five shrinking to a Big Three, Brown could remind the two Democratic leaders that the voters liked him and his budget plan way more than they liked them and theirs.

A Public Policy Institute of California poll taken in late May found that 77 percent of Californians backed Brown’s plan to give more money to poorer school districts and 61 percent liked the idea of a relatively austere budget that pumped money into schools and reduced state debt.

And since no one gets to be Assembly speaker or state Senate leader without knowing how to read a poll, it also helped that the same survey found that while 48 percent of likely voters thought Brown was doing a good job, that number dropped to 29 percent for the Legislature.

For Brown, then, the question was never about getting everything he wanted, but about how cheaply he could buy off the Democrats in the Legislature. It’s a pretty good bet the governor never expected to see a final budget agreement that didn’t include a much-needed boost in court funding or some type of sweetener to send more cash to the many well-off and middle-class school districts that wouldn’t get the large chunk of extra money earmarked for low-income districts.

He also knew that Assembly Speaker John Perez and state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg had their own priorities, which is why the final budget provides some money for Perez’ “middle-class scholarship” plan and Steinberg’s mental health programs and the restoration of Medi-Cal dental benefits.

But Brown knew he was holding the high cards. His call for a conservative spending plan in light of California’s uncertain fiscal future resonated with voters of all political persuasions and any fight by Democrats to supercharge the state budget was going to put them on the wrong side of public opinion.

The governor also doesn’t have to worry about disgruntled Republicans teaming up with angry Democrats to vote down the budget, since GOP leaders know that any Democratic changes to Brown’s plan aren’t going to involve spending cuts.

In the end, the Democrats’ original call for an additional $2 billion in state spending was slashed to about $200 million in new spending, which allowed Brown to say that the state is “living in balance.”

As a gracious winner, Brown – and Democratic leaders — also dangled the possibility that if state revenues grow faster than expected, there could be more money to spend on social service programs come next spring or summer.

No guarantees, however. “I haven’t made any agreement,” Brown insisted.

It really doesn’t matter what assurances Brown gave those Democratic leaders about future spending. A year can be a lifetime in politics and a successful politician like Brown has no trouble accepting a win today in exchange for a fight that may or may not come sometime down the road.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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