From "No" to "Knowing," Says Brown

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There's a well-worn joke about the dog that chases the car and finally catches it who then wonders, "Now what?"

But to hear Jerry Brown tell it, he's perfectly content after winning back the job he'd done once before, going so far as to tell reporters today that he thinks he's making headway on his most daunting task -- convincing recalcitrant legislators to go along with his budget plan.

"There's a lot of goodwill," Brown of budget talks in his morning news conference, called to announce the cancellation of the controversial sale of state office buildings.

Of course, goodwill has to translate into votes... and fast... if the governor's complex plan to close a $25 billion gap, in part, with additional tax revenues approved by voters on a special statewide ballot in June.

When I asked about Republicans -- who are the main hurdle to his preferred plan for tax revenues -- Brown said this: "Even though they're in somewhat of a 'No' mode, they are moving maybe to a 'knowing' mode."

But the governor admitted that negotiations on all of his plans -- after all, Democrats aren't exactly thrilled with the $12 billion in spending reductions -- haven't really gotten to the "crunch" phase yet.

Part of Brown's challenge is how to craft the specific language on some of his more controversial plans, such as nixing redevelopment agencies (RDAs) and realigning the state-local government relationship.

And the details are key. For example, the governor's call to abolish RDAs does not reduce state budget costs after the 2011-2012 year. The available property tax dollars that now go to RDAs, estimated by the Brown team at $1.9 billion, would revert (starting in 2012-13) to schools and local governments. On Tuesday, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office pointed out that the current plan would give schools money in addition to the state's obligations, not as a substitute.

In our view, any property tax revenue from the former redevelopment areas—above the amounts needed to pay existing debt—should be allocated as property taxes pursuant to existing laws. Should the Legislature wish to provide increased support for K–14 districts... it could do so separately

I asked the governor about this today, and his answer -- more about the extra money for local governments than schools -- seemed to suggest there will indeed be some kind of future savings. But the reality is (later confirmed by Brown's budget spokesman) that the governor's call for redistribution of RDAs property taxes is rooted in his belief that it's good policy, not necessarily a fiscal help for state government.

Setting aside that fight (and there will be much more to report on the RDA fight), Governor Brown's biggest challenge is trying to keep all the plates that he's now spinning on poles from falling off.

One issue is whether the only alternative to his budget plan is dramatic and unprecedented cuts to government services. And on that, especially after being prodded a bit in the reporter Q&A, Brown seems pretty resolute.

"I will make those cuts," he said. "I'm not going to sign a budget that follows the gimmickry and the smoke and mirrors of past years."

But for the budget he wants, Brown will need at least 27 senators and 54 assemblymembers to go along. And that's the task on which the once-and-current governor has spent the last few weeks, trying to either cajole legislators to drop their concerns, or else see what it will take for them to get on board.

The most popular talk is that perhaps some additional measures -- tax cuts (which seems dead on arrival), pension reform, budget reform -- on the special statewide ballot would loosen the needed GOP legislative votes. But that could lead to Democrats abandoning ship.

And in a way that only Jerry Brown say it, here's perhaps the best audio clip of the day: the governor's description of what he's up against, likening it to the age old California fight over water.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new 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. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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