Monday, September 26, 2011

CalBuzz Blog: Interview with California Governor Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown vs “Four Horsemen of Tax Apocalypse”

Jerry Brown says he was prepared for the crippling partisan polarization in Sacramento before he began his second tour as governor — but not for the obeisance Republicans pay on fiscal issues to the unelected “Four Horsemen of the Tax Apocalypse.”

In an interview with Calbuzz over the weekend, Brown said his failure to reach a budget compromise with GOP lawmakers resulted, in part, from their “deep belief system that does not permit any association with something that could be called a tax increase.”

Invoking the infamous symbols of Conquest, War, Famine and Death from the Book of Revelation, the former seminarian identified the anti-tax fearsome foursome to whom the Republicans submit as 1) DC anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist; 2) Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association; 3) LA radio spewers John Kobylt and Ken Champiou and 4) FlashReport, GOP operative Jon Fleischman’s right-wing blog.

“It’s emotionally quite wrenching for any of the Republicans to embrace anything opposed by the Four Horsemen of the Tax Apocalypse,” Gov. Gandalf told Calbuzz. “If that group, or even maybe any one or two of them, invoke the dreaded ‘t’ word, they do cower.”
Warming to his theme, he added:

They don’t even have to have a majority. One of them can do the job. For example, the FlashReport was for eliminating the single [source] sales tax break . . . but that wasn’t enough because Coupal . . . said he wanted more time to think about it. And if you don’t get Coupal’s vote you won’t get any votes . . . I won’t say they all think that, but I definitely spoke to a few Republicans who said I had to get Coupal’s sign-off, had to get his blessing .. . . Coupal doesn’t even have to spend any money. It’s just that his name is out there and an opponent will invoke Jarvis. It’s not that they’re going to do a campaign against you, it’s that your opponent will take the Jarvis brand and link it to the tax they say you voted for and that will end your career right then and there. That is a real perception.

Brown’s comments came during a 30-minute telephone interview over the weekend in which he reflected on his first nine months in office. Despite hoarseness from apparently fighting a cold while he studies hundreds of bills the Legislature has sent him, he said he is still enjoying being governor and has given no thought yet whether he would seek another term.

Will you continue to do this even if the Democrats don’t win two-thirds of the Assembly and Senate in 2012, we asked?

I don’t know. I’d like to finish my first year before I start speculating on my second term.

Did he wish he’d just gone off to his ranch in 2010, as he had speculated to us, instead of running for governor?

No. I’ve extremely enjoyed my first year. I find it – I don’t know if I’d call it exhilarating – but I find it quite engaging and interesting and fully worthy of my total involvement.

Whither the charm offensive: The interview began when we asked Brown to tell us what he had learned during the first nine months of his third term.
His first answer was 12 seconds of total silence.

Then he allowed, “I appreciate more the complexity of legislation that’s being generated.”
In the course of our conversation, the 73-year old governor addressed a host of issues, from pension reform and his belief that the Legislature simply passes too many bills to the progress he said his administration is making on green energy, transportation and water policy (full quotes below).

But he was most energetic in responding to questions about how he dealt with the Republican minority on budget and fiscal issues, and flatly rejected the suggestion that during the campaign he may have oversold his ability to charm, cajole and convince Republicans to make a deal with him.

I think that’s a silly narrative. I knew before I ran for governor that it was very, very difficult, maybe impossible, to really solve the budget problem, and that’s really what we’re talking about … it’s the two-thirds vote that can’t be arrived at in most cases … I don’t know where that story came from, but I knew before I ran for governor that it was very difficult and I knew that I might ultimately resort to an initiative because the logjam can’t be broken and a majority vote doesn’t do the job.

Yeah, where did that story come from? Well, when we were the first to interview prospective candidate Brown about the governor’s race in April of 2009, we asked him how he would deal with the fiercely ideological legislators on the left and the right.

“I’m going to become an Apostle of Common Sense,” he said then, borrowing from the title of a book about one of his ideological and theological heroes, C.K. Chesterton. “I will disabuse them of their ill-conceived predilections.”

“There’s an embedded partisanship that has to become dis-embedded,” he said then. “In my bones, I’m not that partisan. I’m an independent thinker. That’s my tradition. I’ve been wary of ideology since I left the Sacred Heart Novitiate (in 1960).”

During the campaign, Brown said he would succeed by gathering all the legislators in for lunch, dinner and a little Kumbaya around the campfire out behind the Capitol. So when we recalled this weekend that he was the one who had said he’d fix Sacramento by forging consensus, he replied:

That was my answer. Did I ever indicate that that was going to produce results? What else can you say when you’re in the campaign? What’s your answer to what they called a $15 billion deficit — it was more like $25 billion — so they say, ‘What is the answer?’ You can say you’ll cut and tax…If you say ‘tax’ then you’re the enemy of the people and if you say ‘cut’ they say ‘What are you going to cut and how the hell are you going to cut that much?’

Or, as he put it back in our April 2009 interview: “Anyone who answers that (tax and cuts question) will never have a chance to be governor.”

The Horsemen: Brown clearly was loathe to acknowledge that he didn’t understand the dimensions of the challenge in Sacramento before he got there; as a political matter, however, he  didn’t want to claim he hasn’t learned anything about how to handle it, either.

When we pressed him about Republican intransigence, he said that coming into office he was not fully aware of the depth and details of the dynamic in which the Republican caucuses operate under the whip hand of the Four Horsemen.

I can’t convince [Senate GOP Leader] Bob Dutton to vote yes on something if his colleagues and the people he looks to or fears are going to say “Don’t do that.” And that’s basically what individual Republicans told me, that even though “I’d like to vote for that I can’t, it’s basically a death sentence.”

So if that’s the way people feel you can have the wisdom of a Solomon but you’re not going to be able to persuade them. The fact that 66 and two-thirds is an immutable barrier that requires Republicans to say “yea” or you have to bypass them and go to the electorate.

We asked a follow-up: Does he believe that in terms of policy any Republicans are “convincible” that new revenue could ever be part of a solution?

No, because they are embedded in a deep belief system that does not permit any association with something that could be called a tax increase — even to allow voters to vote on a tax increase. Now, there may be a different attitude in the next year, I can’t tell you. But that’s the rule. The rule is you have to have a two-thirds vote and the current operating rule of Republicans is “We won’t vote for it -– on any tax increase.” So if you have a gap of $10 billion or $7 billion or $5 billion – we don’t’ really know what it is yet – you gotta cut or you gotta go to the people at some point.

How candid are Capitol Republicans in admitting their position is largely a matter of political survival?

Some say that if the Howard Jarvis people say that I raised a tax or a fee, I’ll be defeated. It’s that simple.

Why not a two-track strategy? Some Democratic and labor allies of Brown have suggested he made a serious miscalculation by not immediately backing an initiative campaign to put tax increases on the ballot, even as he sought a compromise on the issue with Republicans; when that negotiating effort fell through, he was left with no alternative but to agree to deeper cuts than he had originally proposed.

Brown said he couldn’t begin his term by threatening to go to the ballot and besides, he had no reason to suspect the Republicans wouldn’t at least vote to place a measure on the ballot allowing voters to decide whether to extend then-existing tax rates.

I don’t know that it was knowable that the Republicans wouldn’t let the people vote “yea” or “nay” on a tax or a cut. There’s no fundamental reason why letting the people decide something is to be responsible for the peoples’ decision itself. There’s a pretty clear distinction between a tax vote and permitting the sovereign people to vote yes or no on a tax or a cut. . .  

(But) during the time of the tax extension there in March, the Farm Bureau was supporting the extension, the Chamber, Chevron, Safeway – there was virtually no private-sector support, other than the Four Horsemen, that were telling the Republicans not to go along with it.

Too many damn bills: Beyond the polarization that gridlocks Sacramento, Brown said the expansion of state government into the lives of Californians and the resulting volume of legislation is another concern.
Since his previous two terms, from 1975-1983:

…there’s definitely an uptick in legislative involvement in the affairs of Californians. That obviously reflects the complexity of society itself but it does tax the system because there are so many prescriptions floating around this relatively small number of people can only grasp a part of what’s being done. So that makes government less transparent, less understandable.”

Every bill, “whether it’s a microchip on a dog or whether or not to develop a form for some new law,” takes time to understand, he said. For example, Brown said he asked why all the Democrats had voted one way and the Republicans the other way on a bill to ban paying signature gatherers for qualifying initiatives.

The response I got was, “Look, we only had five minutes for that bill.” They basically had to go along with whatever their staff put up for them in their little poop sheet that they give them. And on that particular bill I spent several hours [talking to the deputy secretary of state, academics and others.]. . .
My only point is that one bill alone is hard to understand in just a few minutes of debate so you multiply that by several thousand you have a system that is not very transparent and that even only selected members and staff consultants can understand only some of the bills. It’s not healthy for democracy that so much is opaque and I think regaining public confidence when it’s so low is very difficult when what is being done is beyond the canon of most of the people in the process, let alone the people themselves.

No consensus, impotent leadership: Brown said the “breakdown of a governing consensus” is a problem that extends far beyond Sacramento, but California at least has a potential solution in direct democracy.

I’m also perceiving it in Washington, which is very similar…so we do have the spectre haunting America that the country is becoming ungovernable. It’s a real threat. It’s a serious threat. And how we get out of it is unclear right now.

I think what we are facing in California is much, much more manageable than the breakdown in Washington … In California we have the ultimate resort to the ballot box. So there may be stalemate for a couple of years but ultimately we can hammer this thing out by bringing this before the people and some way that’s probably what we’re going to end up having to do.

The Republicans could have won some significant pension reforms if they had been willing to include it as part of a revenue deal, Brown said.

They [pensions] need reform, they need change, they need to take into account that people are living longer and that the stock market and bond funds may generate a lower return in the years ahead than they did looking backward.

[But within the GOP] The leadership was opposed to the deal. Dutton and [Assembly GOP Leader Connie] Conway could not maintain their leadership against the more hard right unless they took a very hard anti-tax posture…There wasn’t much that was worth the trade-off. The evil of any association with a tax increase is so profound that it’s hard to balance the scale with whatever — ag, pension, reg reform whatever else you can think of –- it pales in terms of the ideological impact of being associated with a tax.

…The people we were talking to weren’t in the leadership and they weren’t used to negotiating … When the leadership is in opposition it becomes very difficult. They call it a ‘pick-off strategy.’ The leadership will say ‘you’re trying to pick off my members’ and they do their best to prevent that because then that challenges their leadership, And if they don’t look like they’re able to hold the governor at bay, then someone else will take their job and get the bigger office.

Brown said he will offer pension reforms some time before the end of the year. “I’ll make some proposals and let the Legislature chew on it for a while,” he said, declining to outline his proposals. Nor would he say what he plans to do with legislation now on his desk to move initiatives to November.

The EGB Jr. stamp: He said that while he has not been able to get a two-thirds vote for revenues through the Legislature, there’s still a lot that his administration has been able to accomplish in his first nine months.

There’s a lot to be done by the executive whatever’s going on in the Legislature. The legislative body is only the generator of new additions to the voluminous codes of California. There’s a whole other and vaster terrain which is called public service – the fish and game, the forests, the rivers, the water, the roads, the trains, the research, the schools, the prisons — there’s a lot going on that has to go on whether or not we get our dose of a 1001 legislative proposals.

Now I know from being governor this time that, looking back on what I knew before, I have a much better sense of how things operate, about how one part of the government fits into another, I know issues when I see them, I’ve put together a very good group of people working with me so I think in the development of the realignment, in the development of the state boards, in the work on the Delta conveyance, in the advancement of energy, renewable energy, all these are going well . . .

I understand how the government operates and I’m putting my own stamp on how to make it work better.

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