No Mas, Says Brown

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Getty/Justin Sullivan

Jerry Brown has been in politics for a long time, so you have to assume he's not surprised by what happened Tuesday afternoon. Disappointed maybe, but not surprised.

78 days after sending legislators his plan to erase the latest in a long line of state budget shortfalls, Brown pulled the plug on negotiations over its passage... in what feels like the end to the first full chapter of the governor's new era in Sacramento.

How it all actually ended, who offered what and who told who to go to, um, you know... is fodder for the endless inside baseball world of the statehouse. Sure, some of it may help us understand what lies ahead; but it's probably a safe bet to say that the governor's 'Plan A' was already on life support and that a full recovery would have been nothing short of a miracle.

The word (both publicly and privately) is that Brown himself called things off, no doubt realizing that the chances for a deal either were too small to continue, or too small as to be realized in time for a June election on $11 billion in tax extensions. Last week, he acknowledged that his preferred date -- June 7 -- was already impossible for local elections officials to carry out. And the longer things dragged on, the more likely an election would come so late in June as to further doom its already cloudy chances at the ballot box.

The governor took to cyberspace Tuesday night (twice in eight days) to explain why he stopped negotiating, a short on-camera address from his office mixed with frustration, Republican criticism, and a resolve to somehow see things through.

"It's a balanced plan," says the governor of his proposal, "that has the support of business, of labor, of environmentalists, of farm groups. I mean, an amazing coalition that spans the spectrum."

But the part of the spectrum not included in that list was, and is, key: small government conservatives. Whatever it was that the governor offered -- either items designed to provide political cover or serious concessions that Democrats and others would hate -- conservative legislators never found enough comfort to cast a vote for the tax election in either the Senate or Assembly.

Democrats angrily accused GOP legislators of defending business tax breaks at all costs -- in particular, the $1.4 billion rollback of a law that allows some corporations to choose how to calculate much of their tax liability. That was actually a budget concession to GOP pols two years ago, in exchange for a tax increase that left lingering resentment among anti-tax groups.

"They put corporate tax breaks ahead of our children and students," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

(Aside #1: Some Republicans immediately sniped on Tuesday that voters overwhelmingly supported that tax break by defeating Proposition 24 on last November's ballot. Well, sort of. Prop 24 would have actually rolled back three separate tax breaks. It's also unclear whether voters were making a nexus between revenues and expenses in that campaign.)

Steinberg, who briefly met with reporters outside his Capitol office (video), also lambasted Reeps for the seven pages of policy negotiations they made public Friday night. In the line sure to get lots of airtime, he quipped: "The only thing missing from this list is a pony. And we'd give them a pony if they gave the people the opportunity to cast a vote."

(Aside #2: a fellow Capitol journo had a quick quip of his own about that one. Clever, Yamamura.)

Republicans, though, criticized Dems for focusing on the big list and said the private talks were, first and foremost, about three topics: pensions, budget operations, and business regulations. It's worth noting that even Dems conceded as much in private conversations before Tuesday's implosion. However, a previously private letter (PDF) from the Guv to Senate GOP leader Bob Dutton indicates Brown, too, thought the list meant more demands were being added.

Did Republicans simply want too much? Did Democrats or their interest group allies threaten to walk away from the entire package if GOP demands were met? You'll find both schools of thought out there at this point. As was pointed out Friday night, the GOP wish list/term sheet/yada yada included comments on things that Governor Brown seemed willing to accept but had not said in public. Best example: changes to public employee pensions, where the GOP document said that Brown may be amenable to big pension reductions for future state employees, including a possible 401(k) type plan. But that list also included things that seemed very tough sells -- like a 'temporary' spending cap that would have likely lasted long beyond the 'temporary' taxes Brown wanted voters to ratify.

While nothing from the governor pronounced the much-talked-about June tax election dead, Senate leader Steinberg gave reporters that news, thus removing the urgency from figuring out what happens next.

Speaking of which... what happens next?

The written statement from Brown that signaled the end of talks put the next chapter this way: "In the coming weeks I will focus my efforts on speaking directly to Californians and coming up with honest and real solutions to our budget crisis."

Senate leader Steinberg put it this way: "We will use the power of our majority to begin aggressively pursuing a different path." He didn't elaborate.

Perhaps those two are compatible, and reflect an "inside/outside" game that hasn't been employed by this governor so far ("outside" means taking the case to the public, as the last guv did so often).

But back to Governor Brown for a final thought, as he certainly now faces a tough choice. His budget has hinged, so far, on two promises he made when he was still gubernatorial candidate Brown: no taxes without an election and no gimmicks. If both promises are to remain intact, that seems to suggest the November election with a tax initiative would take center stage... even though there are big fiscal risks with that route.

If, though, the "no gimmicks" promise is the only one that's sacrosanct, then Brown could try what some now suggest he do (and which he scoffed when I asked him about it last week): try to get four GOP votes for a tax hike in the Legislature, even if the tax deal is somehow restructured. Granted, those odds aren't great, but it doesn't look like the third term governor has any paths forward without tough odds at this point.

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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.
  • Luis Alvarado

    There is no doubt in my mind that the Union bosses will now place pressure on the Governor to go back on his main campaign promise of not raising taxes without voter approval. The Liberal media will work diligently to provide cover and try to blame Republicans for the Governor taking this path. It is up to the Voters to keep his feet to the fire and not give him a pass if he chooses this route. Californians will lose all confidence in any governanance coming from his office if he subsumes to Union Pressure.
    We need to address the real fiscal problems we are facing. The Unions spent over 30 Million Dollars to get Brown elected; they are going to exhort getting their money’s worth from Brown. Who is going to fight on behalf of all non-union Californians who are being choked by the higher taxes they propose? Who is going to have the courage to reform pensions and spending habits of our government? Californians better start paying attention to who our true detractors are.

  • hello

    The Republican leadership made the 53 demands public so it seems reasonable to assume that they want everything and the pony (there are ponies at the fair, you know) for 4 votes. (That’s 13.25 demands per vote by the way.) That’s not reasonable and it indicates an unwillingness to govern. Look, I don’t necessarily agree with the Democrats either (I disagree with them about half the time) but I registered as a Democrat. Why? Because the Democrats have proven that they are willing to govern the State. They are willing to do their job. IMO, the Republicans in the Legislature (except for the GOP 5) ought to be recalled for failing to do their job. The trouble with doing that of course is that a recall costs so darn much. But they should be. If they won’t govern, they shouldn’t be there.

  • jskdn

    So a June election is already undo-able. The public now can see what Republicans want in exchange for a tax vote. And we might possibly see what budget cuts the state faces without new taxes (depending on how honest these politicians are about that). Doesn’t this set up the a reasonable time frame for serious analysis and debate of actual proposals that weren’t previously available to the public and possible tax vote in November if an agreement can be reached? Try doing some journalism around the Republican list that isn’t just about politics.

  • hello

    @ jskdn: The Republicans had a couple of reasonable demands. Look, pensions should be reformed though not for existing employees (you will spend more time and money in court than you will achieve savings) and you should not have 62-year old police officers running after the bad guys. We should also enforce the spending cap we have now. (I mean why do we need another spending cap? Just use the one we have on the books now.) The rest of it though.. state fairs, gifts to developers and corporations.. no, I am sorry. And the rest of it is well over half the list!

  • Lisa

    Brown missed an opportunity here. As I said much earlier he needed to pull a Cuomo. Cuomo’s budget includes unprecedented reforms and restructuring of government, that eliminate waste and inefficiency. And BTW, Cuomo passed his budget yesterday. He took on lobbyists and special interest groups and got buy-in from Republicans. He was not bold enough. Arnold confused bold with bombastic and one liners to the point that he ended his political career appearing like some silly . Ironically, it appears he even agrees that he is little more than that now with his absurd crime fighter Govenator cartoon with teen side kicks concept . ( sounds more than a little creepy). In any event, Brown needs to get a lot more creative than we seen so far. The role of government,i.e., what services need to be delivered and how should they be delivered, and to whom, would have been a better starting point than calling yet another election about taxes.

  • hello

    Once the Republicans made their demands public, Brown had to call the negotiations off. You can’t negotiate in public. But I disagree that Brown missed an opportunity. I think the fundamental problem is that people under the dome are so used to showmanship that when you have a guy come in actually trying to fix things, they don’t quite know how to react. IMO, because Brown is a Dem., this is more true of Reeps than of Dems. (The Dems were able to pull together.) But now the Reeps get to see that their actions do have consequences. We will now see another tax on the rich, probably a tax on oil, maybe other things. Things that were probably deliberately left out of the original budget package but stuff that Democrats have wanted to see for years–and may now be just angry enough to put on the ballot with or without the blessing of the folks under the dome.

  • Dave

    Exacltly what spending do the Republicans want to cut?

  • Marlee

    MA0JXM I’m not easily impressed. . . but that’s impressing me! :)