September 30th was the deadline for Governor Brown to sign or veto the 1,074 bills sent to his desk by the legislature, officially ending the 2013-2014 legislative session. And most of them he signed; vetoing 13.3% of the bills.

But how does Jerry Brown 2.0’s veto rate compare to past Governors and what does it say about his “adult in the room” narrative and “canoe” governing philosophy?

Jerry Brown 2.0, on average, has vetoed 12.6% of the bills sent to him (on average, 959 bills are sent his way each year). When compared to his predecessors, Brown’s recent veto rate appears lacking.  Schwarzenegger, for example, had an average annual veto rate of 26.4% (two times Brown’s rate), despite having more bills pile up on his desk (1,066, on average, per year). But wait, you’ll say; Schwarzenegger was a Republican, who had, at times, a frosty relationship with the Golden Dome. 

So, let’s go back further. Democratic Governor Gray Davis vetoed, on average, 17.6% of the average 1,248 bills annually sent to him. And if we remove 2003 (Davis’ veto rate fell to 6.0% in 2003 from 18.4% in 2002, possibly related to the recall election), the recalled Governor’s rate jumps to an average of 19.4%.  Going back further, Pete Wilson (16.7%) and George Deukmejian (15.5%) both have higher veto rates than Governor Brown 2.0.

Brown 2.0 only exceeds two modern-era Governors: Jerry Brown 1.0 (vetoing 4.6% of the 1,426 bills sent to him, on average) and Ronald Reagan (on average, annually vetoing 6.3% of 1,666 bills). The trend here is undeniable.  Between Brown 1.0 and Brown 2.0, gubernatorial veto rates steadily increased with each administration.  Indeed, no Governor had an average veto rate less than his predecessor, until Jerry Brown 2.0.

But maybe more interesting is the steady decline of bills making it to the Governor.  Since Deukmejian, fewer bills, on average, have landed on each Governor’s desk. Jerry Brown 2.0 has seen about half the volume George Deukmejian did.  Reasons for this could include: legislative gridlock, a more active and successful gubernatorial legislative affairs office preventing bills from getting to the Governor’s desk in the first place, or a more discerning legislature.

There’s little evidence that legislature has been getting more balanced and legislative gridlock has been the norm for years, so that can’t explain the downward trend in bills sent to the Governor; so, let’s rule out those possibilities. Thus, if indeed, the Governor’s legislative affairs office has become both more active and more successful that could explain Brown 2.0’s low veto rate.  But this would also have to mean that past gubernatorial legislative affairs offices were getting less active and/or less successful and that Brown 2.0’s legislative affairs office suddenly achieved rock star status.

But it isn’t like Brown’s predecessors were running ineffective offices.  Deukmejian, Wilson, and Davis all had long histories in Sacramento and were skilled politicians.  Schwarzenegger was an outsider, but he employed many capable people with resumes filled with Sacramento experience (and many were Democrats, who presumably had contacts within the Democratic-led legislature).  So, this theory doesn’t help explain Brown 2.0’s low veto rate.

This calls into question both Brown’s “adult in the room” narrative (i.e., he is the check on the liberal legislature) and his “canoe” governing philosophy (i.e., paddle to the left, then to the right to maintain balance). At an annual veto rate of just 13%, Brown is letting a lot of bad public policy pass by him (evidence includes the plastic bag ban) and on major reforms, from the watering down of his pension reform plan to his last minute involvement in the water bond negotiations, he hasn’t been a forceful leader. All of this suggests he may be the adult, but isn’t in the room.

It does appear Brown 2.0 is attempting to adhere to his “canoe” philosophy as evident by his signing of bills like AB 1897, which will hold businesses liable for the actions of subcontractors (a major victory for labor) while vetoing bills like SB 25, which would have given wide ranging new powers to the Agriculture Labor Relations Board (a major defeat for labor).  But a cursory examination suggests his canoe is still veering leftward.

Often times in political and policy discourse, people like to boil actions down to a single number that is quantifiable.  And in this case, Brown 2.0 can’t compete with past Governors. But in a state like California, and more specifically, a capital like Sacramento, a slight leftward steering might be the best alternative. And even though Schwarzenegger was prone to use his veto pen, his tenure proves that the quality of vetoes may be more important than quantity.

Follow Carson on Twitter: @CarsonJFBruno