Brown Paddles Left, Right on Bills

Comments (1)

Getty/Justin Sullivan

It is easily the most familiar (and perhaps overused) shorthand for Governor Jerry Brown's philosophy of governance and politics. And yet Brown's self-described "canoe theory" seems to have stood the test of time, with his paddling skills put to the test this past week navigating Capitol waters thick with hundreds of pieces of legislation.

For now, the paddle has been laid down, as has the signing pen, giving the public the chance to gauge whether Brown's path was straight or wildly off course.

The Guv's analogy -- that in politics, like in canoeing, one must paddle a little on the left and a little on the right to successfully go in a straight line -- is one he coined early in his second term as chief executive (writer Richard Reeves noted in 1979 that the Guv made the comment to a YMCA group). The "canoe theory" has followed Jerry Brown through the years -- used derisively at times (as Reeves did in 1979), while in other instances cited as evidence of his finely tuned political sensibilities.

With the final decisions announced late Sunday night on scores of bills, Brown's "canoe theory" seems especially useful. The governor finds himself in a statehouse where, more than his previous two terms, powerful political interests are pushing hard on his paddle. Very few of these groups see any value in a course other than the one they've plotted.

In several cases on the 2011 bill watch, Governor Brown paddled his way left... then right... on issues that, at a macro level, don't appear all that different. One example: his decision to sign into law a ban on teens under the age of 18 from using tanning beds and his decision to allow some girls in the same age range to get vaccinations for the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) without parental consent. On one hand, the two laws suggest contradictory standards for teens to control (or not) their own lives; on the other, Brown's logic could be seen as consistent if it's believed the state must step in to help protect the health of some minors. But then that is tough to square with the bill Brown squashed last month requiring helmets for snow skiing kids -- with the governor notably saying in that veto message, "I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state."

Considerable attention has been paid to the fate of bills either loved or hated by organized labor, and rightly so. As the strongest supporter of the Capitol's majority party, the wishes of public employee unions usually carry weight. Brown clearly paddled these last few days both toward... and then away... from his union supporters. Even so, whether those were strokes of equal strength remains up for debate. The governor vetoed AB 101, a bill that would have allowed in-home child care workers to join the union ranks. His veto message (PDF) blamed it on the state's budget woes -- a nod to the reality that state funding of child care programs is easier to cut if it's not under the umbrella of government services protected by labor's political muscle.

But Brown elsewhere steered towards his union allies, ostensibly in the name of good government, by signing the politically explosive SB 202. The bill, easily a candidate for Most Notable Late Night Bloomer in the Legislature's final hours, states that initiative measures (both those in circulation now and those forever more) can only appear on November general election ballots. In his signing message (PDF), the governor praised the bill's effort to get initiatives in front of the most voters possible, as well as the bill's two year delay of a legislative ballot measure buffing up the state's budget reserve fund (Brown and others said the state can't afford that kind of cash stash right now, while one conservative columnist called the Guv to task for no longer trusting the voters to make the right call). But political watchers know that SB 202's most short-term practical effect would be the delay of a likely June 2012 initiative to limit union political spending -- a delay that would place the measure onto the November 2012 ballot, where union-friendly Democrats will turn out in large numbers to vote for President Barack Obama.

(Republicans know this too, which is why a top GOP attorney filed a proposed referendum to overturn SB 202 within hours of Brown's signing of the bill.)

The deep divisions between the labor and business communities were seen in several of Governor Brown's final paddle strokes on Sunday night. He paddled towards big business in vetoing SB 469, requiring economic impact reports before big box stores can be built (PDF), and in his veto (PDF) of SB 931, which would have established new rules for companies that pay workers with "payroll debit cards." Both were big blows to unions. However, Brown then paddled towards the unions with the signing of AB 22, which bans employers in most circumstances from running credit reports on job applicants, and by signing AB 183, which bans self-serve kiosks in supermarkets from being used to buy alcohol. Both were strongly opposed by the business community.

More careful paddling through murky waters can be found in Brown's handling of racial politics on college campuses. He signed the much-talked about plan to give undocumented students full access to financial aid, but vetoed a Democratic plan to allow using race, ethnicity, or gender in admissions. On the latter bill, Brown said (PDF) that he supports the idea but that the courts need to resolve the matter.

Illegal immigration was also in the waters Brown paddled through on two bills related to the seizure of vehicles at police checkpoints -- seizures sometimes based on the fact that the driver is unlicensed, which often means an undocumented immigrant. The governor signed into law AB 353, which bans checkpoints set up for vehicle inspections. But a bill that went further -- AB 1389, which would have tightened the rules even for sobriety checkpoints -- was vetoed (PDF), although backers of the bill said it would have addressed pretty much the same issue(s) as AB 353. "This bill is far too restrictive on local law enforcement," said Brown in his veto message of AB 1389.

Elsewhere, Brown paddled his way between sticky worker rights issues, signing into law a strengthening of the state's employment leave for the birth of a child, but vetoing a proposal requiring employers to give a leave of absence for the death of a worker's family member (PDF).

Even when handing a victory to government reform groups with the signing of a law requiring a three year state budget plan, the Guv smacked the same groups for their push to enshrine "performance based budgeting" into state law, writing in his veto message (PDF):

The politically expedient course would be to sign this bill and bask in the pretense that it is some panacea for our budget woes. But the hard truth is that this bill will mandate thousands of hours of work -- at the cost of tens of millions of dollars -- with little chance of actual improvement.

When the governor did paddle one way more decidedly than the other, it was toward the Democratic side of the lake. Brown signed the internationally buzzed about AB 376, banning most possessions and sale of shark fins. And on Sunday, he signed SB 946, a bill mandating health insurers cover behavioral treatment for autism.

In all, Governor Brown signed many more bills than he vetoed in 2011, even though he'd promised to reject "a lot of bills" by the time the dust settled. Once it was all over, the governor signed 760 bills in 2011, vetoed 128, and allowed one to become law without his signature; that's a veto rate of 14.3%. The veto rate was slightly higher for bills weighed over the last month.

By comparison, a look at press releases from 2010 show former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed about 27% of that year's legislation. Though his veto rate may have been lower than that of his predecessor (who was, after all, a GOP governor dealing with largely Democratic bills), Brown nonetheless made no secret of his frustration that so many proposals were sent to him on topics that he sees as less than mission critical.

"Not every human problem needs a law," the governor groused to reporters in mid September.

But every ratified legislative proposal does ultimately need an up-or-down vote from the guy in charge, a paddle stroke one way or the other. And Jerry Brown seemed to be showing in these last few weeks of decisions that, now 40+ years into his political odyssey, he still wants to position his canoe somewhere between two river banks filled with warring politicos.

The posting has been modified since overnight to reflect official signature/veto tallies from Governor Brown's office. --JM

RSS Subscribe

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.
  • Dave Francis

    When California has a $20 to 24 billion dollar deficit, amid the State suffocating under the millions of illegal immigrants that have invaded, that passing illegal immigrant ‘Dream Act’ defies any logic? California has now joined Texas and a few other states, giving taxpayers money for tuition, while legal Texas students are left out? Where does Liberal Governor Jerry Brown have the nerve to add another $23 million to $40 million annually for taxpayer backed tuition for illegal immigrant students? It’s estimated that 2,500 illegal alien students will qualify for taxpayer aid under the bill. This is the height of disgusting and incomprehensible when US citizens and legal resident, cannot get in-state tuition after their family brought them to America through legal means or the baby was born here. Brown may have past a Californians version of the unsuccessful policy, but those children and adult students have no citizenship standing? They cannot gain any citizen rights under the current system and can still be arrested under current law—unless President Obama has another cheap trick, like bypassing the “rule of Law.”

    Adverse politicians to this ‘Dream Act’ law stated, that it will further attract millions more foreign nationals, across the state border. California–A far left Liberal state and identified as a Sanctuary State, will soon be very much aware of not only more people pouring through the border or flying into LAX international air terminal. But hundreds of thousands, may be millions will skirt immigration laws and illegal alien families will further collapse any chance of California outgrowing their financial insolvency, as scatterings from the new enforcement policing laws enacted currently in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and very soon arrive in that state. Jerry Brown will have to face the voters in the future, when the reckoning comes? But then Jerry Brown and his minions in the state capitol of Sacramento is immersed in Liberal doctrines, that’s why the Golden State has massive welfare problems.

    Dave: I’ve shortened your comment, per our guidelines, because the rest of your posting strayed way into immigration issues that were not on point with Brown’s bill signings. Best to stay on topic. Thanks. –JM