Gov. Jerry Brown outlines proposals to roll back public employee pension benefits during a news conference at the Capitol in October. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press / October 27, 2011)

News analysis

By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times
December 27, 2011

Reporting from Sacramento — In swing states across the country this year, an emboldened group of new Republican governors teamed with GOP legislatures to remake government from top to bottom.

In a handful of states that had resisted the 2010 Republican wave — New York and Illinois, for example — Democratic governors muscled through tax hikes. Even in Nevada, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval persuaded a GOP legislature to extend a tax increase.

But in California, new Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature dominated by his fellow Democrats end the year having struck out on their attempted tax hike and having made few major changes.

“The thing people will remember is you can’t get shark fin soup anymore,” scoffed Tony Quinn, a veteran Republican strategist, referring to a much-publicized law signed by Brown banning the sale of the Asian delicacy’s key ingredient.

The governor has kept a low profile for his return engagement in Sacramento. His press secretary, Gil Duran, noted that the governor’s “sparse” style has been on display since last year’s election, when he hunkered down and waited for his Republican opponent, former EBay executive Meg Whitman, to self-destruct.

“The people criticizing him now said he couldn’t win the campaign running it the way he did, which was keeping it calm and small,” Duran said. “The problem wasn’t created in a year, and it isn’t going to be fixed in a year.”

Brown won election by promising voters that he had the experience to break the Capitol’s partisan logjam. He kicked off the year with a State of the State address that focused exclusively on the budget.

But he was unable to persuade any Republicans to help him put a budget-balancing tax hike on the ballot after he had promised voters final say on the issue. That forced him to go with a budget that slashed deeply into higher education and social services.

Brown’s boosters contend that he prodded Democrats to cut deeper than his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. They also note that Brown and the Legislature moved to collect sales tax on purchases; that California’s credit rating improved after the budget was signed; and that the budget was put in place on time — though only because voters last year approved a ballot measure allowing spending plans to pass on a simple majority vote.

The governor also was able to redirect new nonviolent offenders from state prisons to county jails, the sort of change in the state’s criminal justice system that some Democrats have long sought.

That’s a fairly spare list, experts say.

“I don’t think Jerry Brown can claim a lot of achievements this year,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State. But, he added, that’s not necessarily Brown’s fault.

“There are institutional impediments combined with political ones,” Gerston said. “The state is paralyzed.”

California is one of about a dozen states that require a supermajority — two-thirds of the Legislature, in this case — to raise taxes. With Republicans steadfastly refusing to hike levies or place a proposal to do so on the ballot, Brown had his hands tied, many analysts argue. And the size of the state’s deficit prevented him from launching ambitious proposals.

“You can’t be proactive, from a Democratic perspective, unless you have money,” said John Burton, chairman of the state Democratic Party and a former state Senate president pro tem. Brown “did as good as he could do with the cards that were dealt him…. Certainly, I don’t think he got into government to go around [hurting] higher education and poor people.”

To read entire story, click here.