Jerry, Meet Gridlock; Gridlock, Jerry.

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AP/Rich Pedroncelli

Governor-elect Jerry Brown started Wednesday's unique state budget event with a calm assurance to all in attendance that he wanted to focus on the problems, not possible solutions.

But the audience of state and local lawmakers couldn't contain their partisan potshots, a clear sign that the once-and-future head honcho's honeymoon has already ended, before he even takes office on January 3.

The two hour confab, staged inside the cavernous Memorial Auditorium a few blocks from the Capitol, offered a very clear -- and sobering -- look at the enormous hurdles that Brown has in his path as he returns to a job he left 27 years ago.

"I'm determined to do everything I can to get us back on the track," said Brown in his opening remarks to a crowd of a few hundred (no firm info from the guv-elect's folks on number of attendees or of those invited).

It started out much like a nonpartisan educational session on the state budget, something that perhaps both the former/new governor and the voting public could use right about now.

And the data, even for a Capitol reporter who's watched the budgets in question get cobbled together, was pretty amazing.

First, off, a higher deficit projection. Brown's team, along with help from the the state Department of Finance, say California now faces (absent solutions) a $28.1 billion deficit between now and July 2012. The increase from the much reported $25.4 billion gap is due to a projected loss of $2.7 billion in estate tax revenues, a trickle-down from the federal tax deal struck just this week in Washington, D.C. and mentioned by the Legislative Analyst's Office in its November budget report.

And while the road ahead looks bad, the past is no walk down memory lane.

"We went into the recession in very poor fiscal shape," Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor told the governor-elect and the audience of elected officials and staffers (the public nor interest group representatives were invited). In fact, one of the most telling charts presented showed just how deep into the 'one-time & gimmick fixes' barrel state lawmakers have reached these last few years.

Department of Finance data estimates that in the last three budgets (2008-09 through 2010-11), 75%-85% of each year's deficit solution has been either a short-term fix or one that never materialized.

In fact, a separate chart estimates $66.1 billion in budget solutions over the last decade fall into one of three categories: temporary solutions, ones that can't be repeated, or ones that made future deficits even worse. The largest of those three? The latter. And, if you're still with me, the single largest "solution that made future deficits worse": the $14.6 billion in deficit bonds pushed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a bipartisan group of elected officials in 2004.

Once the table had been set with such unsavory items, the food fight began. As a fellow Capitol reporter tweeted, "An Assembly floor debate has broken out."

Democrats, both on stage and in the audience, began to ask leading questions to highlight their belief that the problem lies in too little revenue. Republicans fired back, with questions about what's actually a spending cut and about the impact on revenues from what they deem excessive business regulation.

Locals took their shots, too, with questions about how county governments have to carry out the deep spending cuts or why no one's talking about cutting overhead costs and not services. Rank and file legislators threw in several other budget-related, but somewhat tangential questions, including the lack of federal reimbursement for incarcerating undocumented immigrant felons.

Even the Dems-versus-Reeps divide that has led to so many dubious budget decisions was brought into the fray. "I'd like to know what are we going to do to overcome this partisan obstacle" said Walt Scherer, a councilman from the Sierra foothills town of Loomis.

(The comments of Scherer, a Republican, seemed to be provoked by the absence on the stage of only one legislative leader, Senate GOP Leader Bob Dutton. Dutton and Scherer appeared to exchange some testy words after those remarks, and the GOP leader later said he decided to sit in the audience because he was there to listen, not talk.)

"I think we're going to work at it," said Governor-elect Brown in response to the city leader's question. "The crisis is going to open a way to a solution because, really, our backs are to the wall."

Brown offered very few observations today, letting the debate come to him. One noteworthy comment, though, came during a discussion of all of the debt that's mounted through the years. "That gives a cautionary signal to those who say, 'Let's borrow some more,' said Brown. "Borrowing's not a free good."

While the governor-elect never outlined any specific deficit solution during the long election season, he did -- in my first and only sit-down interview -- suggest borrowing may be inevitable.

"We're going to have to use financing to get us through the next couple of years," said Brown in our chat on March 4, stressing that it would only be done as part of a larger financial 'workout' proposal.

But other than that, the veteran government leader stayed pretty quiet, avoiding any Q&A with the press as he left the building. While his staff says they hope to hold perhaps two more of these events in other parts of California before the inauguration, the real question is -- after seeing all of the evidence -- what will Jerry Brown stand behind as the way forward?

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Lillian

    It’s good he didn’t offer solutions. Let others posture and preen. And, I am guessing he knows more now than he did in March.

  • Lisa

    There are opportunities here. I hope Guv-elect is as creative and bold thinker, as I have been told. he is. One opportunity here is to push important and long time and much needed education reforms. The economic reality will finally force the issue. This is good news for the Mayor of LA too, the boldest and brightest voice for education reform in this state. The empty chair was childish gesture and sends a negative message to DTS voters and moderate Republican voters who by next election will be joinig DTS ranks and voting for Democrats if this “empty chair” behavior continues. Kudos to the REP that took Dutton on. DEMS should drop the goofy tax swap idea, it would be helpful if DEMS would read the LAO reports once in awhile…instead of just scheming for new budget gimmicks.

  • Robyn Boyer

    May I suggest hiring professional facilitators to enforce the rules of collaborative problem-solving? Vasconcellos suggested it years ago, when CP-S was first gaining traction. And now there are sophisticated systems- and Long View approaches that have never been tried to “solve” the budget. The budget process has remained confrontational, ideological interests slugging it out for near-term gains and rarely if ever anyone looking at Flip Points: what will the decisions of today enhance, obsolesce, bring back and flip into tomorrow?

  • John

    I thought there was gridlock when 2/3 majority was required to pass a budget, and the GOP was villain. Now there is gridlock when the dems alone can pass a budget without any GOP cooperation? Does this make any sense? Now that the dems can pass a budget without any opposition, they will again focus criticisms GOP’s unwillingness to vote to raise taxes. Here’s the end game – there is no way to remedy the enormous structural deficits by raising taxes and/or cutting spending. It is too late. The bond market will eventually make it so expensive to borrow that the only option is to go begging to DC. The powers in DC will lend the money to the States, but with requirements such that the legislature will no longer be able to spend at will. This is the least painful solution, but the politicians and the newspaper writers continue to put their heads in the sand hoping that there will be a fairy tale ending.

  • Lisa

    John’s “end game” is on spot. BTW, We should be very worried about the bond market…we are still living with the possibility of a double dip recession.

  • John

    NY Times Warning: Blue State Armageddon On The Way

    I can’t wait to see all the arrogant Sacramento politicians bend to their knees when this happens. It will be pay back time for all their reckless behavior. Unfortunately, many innocent citizens will be hurt in the process, but this is what happens when politicians (i.e. gov’t) become too powerful.

  • Lisa

    46 states are struggling with serious deficits . This is not about being a blue or red state. The global cost of capital is going higher and higher due to government deficits at every level…. EVERYWHERE… its unclear how this all shakes out…