Consistent, but adjusting. Leading, but not dictating. Work, not blame.
Those are just a few of the boiled down themes Jerry Brown offered for both the political life he's lived, and the quest he's now beginning, in a wide ranging interview this morning in Santa Monica.
Yes, Santa Monica. I flew down to meet the newly official Democratic candidate for governor at the quiet home of one of his longtime friends, where he was holding court on day two of his sit down chats with journalists. Granted, many of the same themes and messages you've seen in day one's news coverage -- that kind of message discipline is true with most any politician.
But unlike most pols who nowadays shape shift around any actual question that's not answered by one of their talking points, Brown seemed willing to let the conversation turn to a wide variety of topics under the umbrella of state government.
What follows are some excerpts from the interview; a compact radio version airs tomorrow morning on the daily edition of The California Report, followed by a longer version on our weekend newsmagazine, and the complete 21-minute Q&A here tomorrow morning as this week's podcast.
Thriftiness Is No Vice: Given California's government dysfunction didn't happen overnight, it seemed reasonable to ask Brown whether he accepted any blame for that... particularly in light of criticisms that his previous administration had spent too little on fundamentals like higher education and infrastructure. Not responding to those specifics, Brown said this: "I did slow government spending from the growth pattern under Ronald Reagan. I was a frugal governor. I built up a rainy day fund which was the largest surplus in the history of this state." Brown believes that surplus was a "salvation" for local services after voters approved Proposition 13.
"There are no sacred cows": Even casual observers know that two ballot measures in particular have had profound, and opposite, effects on California government: the tax limitation under Prop 13 and the spending mandates contained in the school funding formulas of Proposition 98. I asked Brown if either constitutional amendment should be sacrosanct in the process of fixing the state's problems.
Short answer: no. Longer answer: he says both have had done good things, but have also have had unintended consequences. On Prop 13: "It's migrated power up to the state level, and the state can't cope with all the diverse interests that are easier to confront at the local level." Brown demurred on the call to remove the property tax cap of Prop 13 for commercial property, returning instead to his opposition to any new taxes. On Prop 98: Brown rejected any notion that schools get too much money. "It's very important that we find more money for schools, but I wouldn't say that any provision shouldn't be examined in a very careful, meticulous way."
A Workout Plan... With Borrowing: Brown's declaration of no taxes without voter approval -- which, in this state means no tax hikes -- begs the question: so how do you erase the problem? "Well, what have we done in the last couple of years?" he said. "We've had to borrow. And we're going to have to use financing to get us through the next couple of years, but it has to be financing in the context of a serious 'workout.'" If you're not familiar with that term, it's a plan often put in place to help debtors avoid things like bankruptcy. Which, of course, a state can't declare... but we digress. He's right that borrowing has been used often in recent times, but the exact shape of any future borrowing is the real question. For example, large borrowing to erase a deficit would appear to no longer be an option, under 2004's Proposition 58.
Of Enviro Regs & Oil Drilling: As attorney general, Brown has been critical of some of the current uses of California's landmark mandatory environmental impact analysis law, CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act). CEQA reform has been a rallying cry of legislative Republicans and Governor Schwarzenegger in the last few years, but such talk has generally been anathema to Democrats. Today, Brown again suggested it's being abused. "It takes nine years to put up a transmission line," he said. "We can't bring solar and geothermal electricity from the desert unless we have transmission lines. We've got to cut back the regulatory underbrush, and I will take a back seat to no one in that effort." I also decided to ask him, not knowing his position, about the proposal for a new offshore oil drilling project along the Central Coast. "That's not something I'm proposing," he said. (Sure, "proposing" may not be synonymous with "supporting.")
Waste Fraud, & Abuse: That phrase is a fave of government critics, and it's no doubt going to be repeated time and again by Republicans in the 2010 election cycle. Brown's message to those opponents: "I'm going to ask them for each item of waste and abuse. And yeah, we're going to find things... but we have to cut back, not rhetorically, not as a political bombthrower, but in a serious process of engagement."
Populism?: Earlier this week, we posed the question of whether Jerry Brown would engage in a bit of old fashioned, populist-style, corporate America bashing in this campaign. One thing seemed clear today: he's ready to do so if need be. Referencing a candidate who might be wealthy and say, in his words, "'I've been a CEO, therefore I can run California'" -- and, hmmm... I wonder who that might be... Brown made it clear that corporate wrongdoing could be fair game. "That certainly opens up the whole discussion of the role of corporate America and whether or not there was enough supervision on Wall Street," he said. "And I would argue that the $7 trillion wipeout of American wealth by the unregulated profit taking on Wall Street is an example of where government was needed, and it was absent."