In a move that set the Capitol ablaze with chatter and -- depending on your company -- either praise or scorn, Governor Jerry Brown today vetoed the budget sent to him less than 24 hours ago by his fellow Democrats.
"California is facing a fiscal crisis, and very strong medicine must be taken," said Brown from behind his desk in a video posted on YouTube.
So now what?
The budget ratified Wednesday, largely on a party-line vote, placed the veteran pol in a sticky wicket: veto it and ruffle some feathers, or sign it and trigger a chorus of "Brown broke his promise about gimmicks" comments by pundits and potshot takers alike.
At first, few seemed to think he'd do it. In fact, in records dating back to 1901, no one has found a gubernatorial budget veto (although others have been threatened, as recently as the summer of 2008). But Jerry Brown has made a career out of defying conventional wisdom. And given his passionate rebuke of budget gimmicks during the 2010 campaign, the veto of the budget seems to at least make good on those promises.
But lest conspiracy theorists think this was actually a clever plot by Democrats (to what end, I don't know), the leaders of the two houses of the Legislature came out today and politely slammed Brown -- they are all Democrats, after all -- for making a bad call.
"The governor is fond of citing The Art of War," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg at a morning news conference in the Capitol. "His decision is apparently part of some elaborate strategy to force a confrontation."
Democrats focused their fire on Brown's months long refusal to offer any kind of 'Plan B' in the event his cut-and-tax fiscal proposal was rejected by Republicans. Which, as we know, it was.
Steinberg also took aim at Brown's veto message (PDF) about the lack of enough real budget fixes, by reminding everyone that California gives its chief executive the power to strike spending via the line item veto.
"Quite frankly, his actions are dismaying," said Assembly Speaker John Perez.
While never calling the governor a bad person or a bad Democrat, the two legislative leaders seemed to do something even worse: they called him a bad politician.Perez: "The art of politics is finding that sweet spot where you get a s far as you can, and bring enough people with you. It's something the governor has struggled with."
Steinberg: "The governor is really getting caught up, and frankly a little bit confused, between total victory... and progress."
But Governor Brown, speaking to reporters today in Los Angeles, was insistent that his veto is the only way to go.
"With a lot of thought, I decided that a veto of the entire budget was the most productive way to proceed," he said. "I think it will shake up the system in a way that will give a better result."
But to be accurate, what Brown vetoed was the budget bill "in chief" -- that is, the budget absent the many implementing "trailer" bills. It turns out those bills have yet to reach his desk... and... there's a chance that he might actually like some of those. For example, the governor said today he's intrigued by the bill to force online retailers to collect state sales tax (the so-called "Amazon bill"). And then there's the fiercely debated plan to eliminate local redevelopment agencies; Brown's version came up short of legislative votes in March, but the Democratic alternative -- should it pass legal challenges -- brings in the same amount of money, and perhaps even more over time.
Republicans were all too happy to jump on Brown's Bad Budget Bandwagon today, essentially doing a 'I told you so' to their fellow legislators on the other side of the aisle.
"Governor Brown today did the right thing by vetoing the sham budget passed by legislative Democrats," said Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway in a statement. "It contained billions in illegal tax increases and lacked common-sense reforms."
Of course, Brown took particular aim at GOP legislators in his written and public veto messages, saying their reluctance to cut a deal earlier this year was the first fatal blow.
The governor's coalition of budget backers -- business, education, and others -- seemed to generally applaud his action, while gingerly sidestepping the "Dem-on-Dem" nature of the dispute.
And as a sideshow to the big veto decision, the Capitol community is also abuzz as to whether Brown's veto message -- saying the Democratic budget was "not a balanced solution" -- would force Controller John Chiang to invoke Proposition 25 and therefore block legislator salary and per diem payments this month. Chiang's only message so far: I'm looking at it.
The real question, for now, is whether the state's precarious finances can hold up for a traditional summer-long standoff. Earlier this year, the controller's experts said that the state government was projected to run out of cash in the bank sometime in July. A spokesman said today that new projections should be ready next week, ones that will take into account a current year windfall of some $3.2 billion above January estimates. But the money will probably, in the end, drive the debate; it's been made pretty clear that absent either a budget with complete solutions, or one predicated on Brown's tax extensions but including detailed cuts that would trigger on in their sted, Wall Street investors won't give us the cash... raising the specter of IOUs like those issued in 2009.
That's the real thing to watch as the Capitol community, giddy for a brief moment yesterday over the prospect of a slow and easy summer, now seems resigned to fight it out all over again.