Gov. Jerry Brown “may not have anticipated just how much more polarized the state Capitol had become since he left,” says Dan Schnur of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / June 16, 2011)

NEWS ANALYSIS

Governor’s action sends the issue back to a Legislature he’s been unable to unify.
By Michael J. Mishak and Anthony York, Los Angeles Times
June 18, 2011

Reporting from Sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown was elected on a pledge to break legislative gridlock by changing Capitol culture, and he showered state lawmakers with attention as he tried to forge a bipartisan compromise to fix the state’s chronic financial mess.

But the budget that Democratic legislators sent to him Wednesday — and his swift veto of it — threaten a rerun of the same dysfunction that has paralyzed Sacramento for years. Democrats and Republicans are as divided as ever, a viable budget seems elusive and the governor is feuding with his own party.

“That’s not what people expected when they elected him as governor,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former national GOP official.

Throughout his campaign last year, Brown portrayed himself as a political sage, a former two-term governor with the experience to usher in a new era of bipartisanship and honest budgeting. In an oft-repeated line, he said his governorship would be an opportunity to “turn this breakdown into a breakthrough.”

Past governors developed a reputation for playing political hardball to pass budgets, dispatching staffers to the Legislature as enforcers. But Brown devoted the first few months of his current administration to courting lawmakers. He visited their offices, bar-hopped with them after work and wined and dined them in his downtown loft. He became the first governor in at least a half-century to testify before a legislative committee.

If he could rein in Democratic spending and win over the necessary handful of Republicans, he could put his tax plan before voters. But eventually a familiar pattern emerged: Republicans dug in their heels against taxes and Democrats fell back on creative accounting schemes. In a flash, Brown seemed to be at the mercy of the forces that had frustrated his predecessor.

“It’s hard to overstate how much Sacramento has changed since the early 1980s,” when Brown was last governor, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “He may not have anticipated just how much more polarized the state Capitol had become since he left.”

In the absence of Republican support, Democrats gave Brown a budget that relied on the kind of smoke-and-mirrors maneuvers that have perpetuated a deficit for years. It also included some tax hikes — increases that passed without the two-thirds vote typically required. They were essentially asking the governor to break two key promises he made to voters: no more budget gimmicks and no new taxes without voter approval.

Hours after celebrating with a case of Hefeweizen beer, the Democrats were hit with Brown’s unequivocal “No.”

Their budget “didn’t do what it needs to do, and it wasn’t consistent with what I pledged,” Brown said in an interview Thursday morning. “I know we can do better.”

Political observers said Brown had little choice but to veto the budget — the first modern governor to do so, according to state officials. Signing it, they said, would have undermined his administration’s credibility on his core issue and established him as a weak chief executive in the infancy of his third term as governor.

“If he signs the budget with gimmicks, then he turns into Arnold Schwarzenegger, who very soon got a reputation as someone who could be rolled in negotiations,” said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at UC San Diego. That route only leads to “more budgets with gimmicks,” Kousser said.

Indeed, Schwarzenegger came into office promising to repair the state’s finances and create long-term fiscal stability. But compromises with the Legislature resulted in budgets that exacerbated California’s troubles and left it with a bigger deficit than he inherited.

Brown’s Thursday veto set up a showdown with Democrats, who lashed out at him for rejecting a plan that they described as balanced, on time and “worthy of the governor’s signature.”

“When he failed … to get the needed Republican votes, we did the most responsible thing we could do with the limited resources before us,” said Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles).

Brown now faces a steep challenge in getting the Legislature to craft a spending plan like the one he promised voters. “Brown is looking at the long term, which is the right thing to do.” Pitney said. “The problem is the long term doesn’t have much of a constituency.”

Democrats in the Assembly were jubilant Wednesday after passing the budget, noting the occasion as the second time in a quarter-century that the Legislature had met its deadline. Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills) told his colleagues that they had “turned the page on the annual embarrassing ritual” of long budget standoffs.

In the Senate, Budget Committee Chairman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) scoffed, “Smoke and mirrors is defined differently by different people.”

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