Brown's Budget "Fuzzy Zone"

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KQED/John Myers

Governor Jerry Brown lamented this morning that it's not altogether clear where things stand in the Legislature on his still stuck budget proposal.

"There's a fuzzy zone here that's not yet been transcended," said Brown.

And yet, a case could be made that the governor might have inadvertently added some fuzz to things in his press Q&A when it comes to his own bottom line.

The press event featured a phalanx of labor, public safety, education, and (some) business leaders standing at Brown's side. The story the governor wanted reporters to write was obvious: only a few ideologues are holding things up for the rest of us.

It was also the focus of a YouTube video he posted on Sunday night.

Trouble is, that story line has been out there for several weeks, if not months.

Instead, as reporters are wont to do, the talk turned to the finer points of negotiations as they now stand. With most politicians these days, the over-reliance on talking points and a trigger happy press staff ("Last Question!") usually kills such freewheeling exchanges.

But as we know, Jerry Brown is not most politicians.

Time and again, Brown's answers -- while reflecting the genuine give and take nature of negotiations -- left the press corps to draw all sorts of conclusions.

It started with a first question (from yours truly) about whether his "tax bridge" needs to be enacted for as long as a year -- as written in current legislative language -- in order to provide stability for either government services or the state's Wall Street lenders.

"We can work that out," he said. "That's subject to negotiations." Later, he virtually dismissed the legislative proposal as only "an opening move."

No doubt Brown hopes to placate possible GOP support with a shorter tax plan. But if the "bridge" is so short as to be a matter of weeks, it may embolden those who say other options exist.

(To be fair, Brown answered my follow up on that point by saying that "it's not workable" to have no tax bridge.)

Later, Brown took a question regarding the exact structure of going to the voters -- a single proposal, multiple ones -- and proceeded to admit that, too, was far from settled.

Then, in a response already highlighted by the Sacramento Bee, the governor seemed to leave the door open to a $10 billion deficit solution that relies on something other than taxes and deep cuts.

"I just don't give you all my strategies before I implement them," he said.

The issue was also raised, it seemed, in Sunday night's online video in which he said that the budget will be voted on this Wednesday "one way or the other."

Later on in today's event, rather than some of the dire and disastrous scenarios being laid out if his plan isn't implemented, Brown did the exact opposite of most politicians: he refused to predict doom and gloom.

"Better than the word 'disaster,' what we're talking about is a slow moving decline," said Brown. Yet again, you could almost hear opponents to his budget retort, So then why not do something different?

Adding to the complexity of today's optics, Brown then revealed that he'd just received a new "big idea" proposal/demand -- ostensibly from GOP pols -- that would "give heartburn to a lot of environmentalists."

Four of the Republicans who have publicly admitted they've been negotiating with Brown seemed to sense an opening on the 'What do they really want?' comments of the governor. By early afternoon, they had penned a joint press release and distributed a six page detailed list of their proposals (PDF).

And lastly, Brown's press conference reaffirmed the conventional wisdom that his chances of getting voter approval hinge almost entirely on a deal prior to July 1 -- when the sales and vehicle tax rates he wants to "extend" will expire and thus become, in political parlance, tax "increases."

"I think if these are tax extensions," he said, "we have a very good chance to win."

Translation to tax opponents: delay a deal for another 18 days and get what you want.

Governor Brown's refusal to play many of the PR games that are now standard political practice certainly gets him credit from us in the press who clamor for such unrehearsed, frank talk. But it's also true that the Guv's every chess move in this nonstop online/on-air news world is being dissected and countered at breakneck speed.

In particular, Republican politicians and pundits have begun hammering Brown for the idea of a tax "bridge" as "breaking" his no-taxes-without-voter-approval campaign pledge.

That spin ignores the role GOP legislators played in Brown's inability to make good on a June statewide election. But as governor, Brown remains the most central figure in this drama. And it will be interesting to see whether his rejection of the PR strategy of simplicity/repetition (which admittedly often failed to work for his predecessor) will gain traction -- or support -- beyond those of us whose job it is to ask the questions.

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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.

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