Question Time With Jerry Brown

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KQED/John Myers

No one seems to be able to recall a sitting governor testifying in front of legislative budget conferees, and in truth it really wasn't testimony that Governor Jerry Brown seemed interested in this morning... but rather, a dialogue.

And so for about an hour, the state's chief executive chatted with the bipartisan group -- joking, jabbing, and reflecting about California's massive budget mess.

"The fact is, we have to have a plan," said Brown in his opening comments. "We need a solution."

The governor clearly seemed to arrive ready to mix it up, and while he did spend a little time insisting that Democrats, too, need to come out of their comfort zone, he saved most of his quips... his jabs... and his exhortations for legislative Republicans. Though they insist that Dems are also leery of the Guv's plan (though for different reasons), it's Republicans -- more every day -- who are opposing a June statewide election on Brown's plan to extend soon-to-expire taxes.

The governor's early comments incorporated a line a few other Dems have used in recent days: he won the election promising to do just this.

"People voted overwhelmingly for my platform," said Brown, "and said... we are the ultimate deciders."

The governor went on to urge legislators to, in a sense, find solace in asking the public for input, saying otherwise that "it's too painful."

The event, as the headline says, felt almost like the British Parliament's 'Question Time.' While that kind of give-and-take is, especially in Sacramento, refreshing, it also doesn't usually elicit major breakthroughs. And so it was today, too.

After the governor had repeatedly lamented GOP objection to a special election ("That's not American," he said), he then engaged in a couple of interesting exchanges with Republicans who were willing to push back.

First was Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), who lamented what he counts as a deficit package now of more taxes and borrowing than actual cuts. "It's not exactly a balance between cuts and taxes," he said, then asking whether Brown supports the Democratic legislative package. Brown simply said that some legislative solutions are not as "permanent" has he would like.

The Guv's best line, perhaps, came in discussing the GOP anti-tax pledge. A seminary student who as a young man was destined for the priesthood, Brown remarked that he was let out of his vows after changing his mind.

"I was able to get a dispensation to get out of them," he said as the room chuckled. "Now, it took the Pope to do that, but we can set up a process that we can dispense people from pledges."

And the veteran pol then offered some political advice to Republicans: "You should be voting for this (special election) and then join the campaign against it."

A later exchange with Assemblymember Diane Harkey (R-Dana Point) took a different angle, as Harkey said it would be good to get reform of the public employee pension system on the ballot, too.

Brown pounced on the point (audio of their exchange below):

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Harkey, though, took Brown to task for not talking about the issues enough in public. "You control the message," she said. "You're the big guy here. What you say hits the papers."

It's hard to know whether the governor thought he'd actually make some headway today, or simply hoped that his visit upstairs would generate some buzz and, thus, perhaps a little more public pressure.

But the event showed that Brown is comfortable with the give and take of an unscripted debate in ways that many governors, and both of his immediate predecessors, were not. It also served as a reminder that both he, and everyone, have a lot on the line in the coming two weeks as his self-imposed deadline draws ever closer. In fact, Governor Brown made it clear, both to committee and to reporters afterwards, that the absence of either voter approval on taxes... or an election altogether... will lead him to insist on what he called a "day of reckoning" budget with $26 billion in spending reductions.

"I've been in politics a long time, and I play all the games that you all play," he said. "And I'm telling you: time is running out for California and this country if politicians just keep squabbling all the time."

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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.
  • Bill Leonard

    The last Governor to speak to a committee was Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. in 1979 before the Assembly Ways and Means Committee in support of a constitutional limit on spending.