Brown Interview: Pensive, Upbeat, More Latin

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The governorship is not a dictatorship," said Gov. Jerry Brown in an interview Tuesday touching on several issues from his first year in office. (Photo: KQED/John Myers)

Governor Jerry Brown may be reviving the so-called "dead language" of Latin, at least in its application to California politics.

In a brief one-on-one interview after his Tuesday news conference, Brown took the long view on pensions, offered a succinct view of his governing philosophy, and -- yes -- invoked a Latin saying to make clear that he's nowhere near losing his appetite for life in the political arena.

Wednesday morning's edition of The California Report features extended excerpts of my conversation with Governor Brown, a chat interrupted at one point (and edited out of the radio feature) by the barking of his Corgi, Sutter, and an aide running in to find the First Pooch's leash.

The 73-year-old chief executive summed up the hard work of politics via the Latin phrase Ad Astra per Aspera, which he said means, "To the stars through the thorns." (In Kansas, apparently, they see Brown's translation of "thorns" as the word "difficulty," but the point is the same.)

And yet, he rejected any notion that the job is less, or worse, than it was cracked up to be when he took the oath of office back on January 3.

"It's not stressful," said Brown. "It's contentious, conflictual, and -- for some -- frustrating, but for me exhilarating."

The governor expounded on views offered earlier in the day of the campaign that lies ahead of him, a $7 billion tax increase to be considered by voters in next November. And Brown made it clear that his as-yet-unannounced coalition will be promoted representing the consensus view of the state's most influential men and women.

"If the majority of voters feel that the leaders of California, from all backgrounds, say this is something we need, then I think we'll win," said the governor in reference to the tax initiative. He also dismissed any notion that cajoling voters on a sales and income tax increase compares to the hard slog of trying to win GOP legislative support for an election on taxes in 2011.

"The voters will look at things in a more objective way" than did legislators, Brown said. And reiterating his assertion earlier in the day that leaders of several large businesses (not yet identified) will eventually sign on to the effort, Brown said that support already exists in private. As for the endorsement of the California Chamber of Commerce -- a major political force representing hundreds of big companies -- the governor likened the task to getting a proposal ratified by the Legislature. Enough said.

Governor Brown dismissed any talk of amending his tax proposal to better fit the interests of one of the other Democratic-leaning/union groups seeking a tax hike in 2012, saying there's just not enough time. And he repeated his assertion that multiple tax measures on next fall's ballot will doom them all.

That led us to a lengthy discussion of Brown's proposal to revamp pensions for future public employees. It's a proposal of which many in the union world are, to put it mildly, skeptical. And some political insiders say the harder Brown pushes pension reform in 2012, the harder he may find it to muster the political and fundraising muscle he needs from labor for his tax initiative.

"We have to accept reasonable reforms," said Brown who argued that the current structure, combined with longer life expectancy, is ultimately unsustainable. "When you sit back and think about it, it's only a matter of time."

But the governor is nowhere near the position of the most staunchly conservative pension reformers: he won't go after a do-over of future benefits for current public employees and he doesn't accept the worst-case scenarios about long-term unfunded liabilities.

"The vested right is more powerful than any other relationship in society," said Brown on the benefits promised current workers. "There's nothing so enduring as the pension obligation of the state of California or any of the local jurisdictions."

He reiterated his belief that some local governments will be "tempted" to challenge the case law surrounding promised benefits to current workers, but said he doesn't think the state is in the same predicament. "I believe at the state level, if we make reasonable reforms, that we can very much respect the existing precedents," said Brown.

And on the debate over how to calculate the size of the future shortfall -- which depends on what's a reasonable assumption on investment returns -- the governor dismissed what some call a "risk free" rate of return assumption on pension investment earnings, a rate of 4.5% a year.

"My risk-less rate of return is closer to zero," said Brown. "Return is connected to risk."

In the last few minutes of the chat, I asked the governor a little about the expectations he sets for the hard work of governing in an era of austerity, and the challenges of setting reasonable expectations from Californians who are eager for change... and now. And when I mentioned that his analogy likening governing to managing a chronic "condition" struck me as painting in less bright and bold colors as his predecessor, Jerry Brown was quick to rise to his own defense.

"Boldness is in the eye of the beholder," said Brown. And then, in what sounded awfully like an overall motto for governing, he said, "I will mix boldness with some pragmatism, so I get it done."

Click the icon below to hear the entire one-on-one interview with Governor Jerry Brown.

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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.
  • Anonymous

    John: Unfortunately California needs gravissium and more veritas

  • Speech85

    I thought it was seven fat years followed by seven lean years?

  • Healthcare Activists

    Amen. This is why I voted for the guy – everything he said: AMEN on it. Go, Jerry, go. This actually sounded like a viable solution. Look people, utopia we are not going to get. Compromise – this is what real compromise sounds and looks like. 

  • Isart

    Still no mention of revisiting Prop 13?

  • John Myers, KQED

    No, and I think if you read Brown’s comments about pragmatism you’ll see why.  He clearly knows that for a number of people in California — big businesses and anti-tax groups, in particular — changing Prop 13 is a non-starter.

    That’s not to say that Brown might not agree in principle with some of the criticisms.  But as long as he’s employing a “broad coalition” approach to tax revenues and the budget, Prop 13 won’t get touched.

    More interesting for you, I suspect, is the new legal challenge filed by Prop 13 critics over its impact on the CA Constitution (“amendment” vs. “revision”).  That issue has been litigated before, but not in the way these folks are approaching it (challenging the 2/3 tax vote in the Legislature).  Might be one to watch.         –JM

  • j.marko unknown

    a rather soft item,well the California prison industrial complex looms-

  • Speech85

    The prison industrial complex has been with since at least three strikes.  Realignment will enable the counties to decide whether they want to transform the prison industrial complex into a jail industrial complex or if they might want to try something else.

  • Steve Lawton

    John Myers gets my personal 2010 California journalism awards for Most Improved Podcast and Most Trenchant Blog. 

    (So who’s running the pool on the Supreme Court’s RDA decision?)

  • Anonymous

    Higher education cost savings eliminate need for additional funding.

    Paying more is not a better
    university. UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) dismissed many needed
    cost-cutting options. Birgeneau did not consider freezing vacant faculty
    positions, increasing class size, requiring faculty to teach more classes,
    doubling the time between sabbaticals, freezing pay & benefits, reforming
    pensions & health benefits.

    Birgeneau said such
    faculty reforms would not be healthy for Cal. Exodus of faculty,
    administrators: who can afford them?

    We agree it is far from
    the ideal situation. Birgeneau cannot expect to do business as usual: raising
    tuition; granting pay raises & huge bonuses during a weak economy that has
    sapped state revenues & individual income.

    We must act. Chancellor
    Birgeneau’s campus police deployed violent baton jabs on students protesting
    increases in tuition. The sky above Cal.
    will not fall when Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) is ousted.


    Email opinions to the UC
    Board of Regents