Thursday, December 29, 2011

Los Angeles Times: Columnist Skelton on Governor's look ahead to 2012

Gov. Jerry Brown looks ahead to 2012

The California governor says he'll schmooze more with Democrats in the Legislature. But he plans to bypass lawmakers and put an initiative to raise taxes on the November ballot.

Gov. Brown
Gov. Jerry Brown holds a news conference in Sacramento to discuss his first year in office. (Photo by Autumn Cruz, Associated Press / December 27, 2011)

From Sacramento
Sitting on a hard wood bench for an hour listening to Gov. Jerry Brown field questions, it's often difficult to tell whether he's articulating a conviction, hiding something or sorting out his thoughts as he speaks.

All of the above, I suspect, but mostly the latter.
Brown on Tuesday invited into his cabinet room a gaggle of Capitol reporters who had asked for year-end interviews. Rather than meet with each one individually, he agreed to a group sit-down — on very uncomfortable seats. (The Times ran an article on the Q&A on Wednesday.)

Past governors furnished the Ronald Reagan Cabinet Room with a handsome mahogany table and restful leather chairs. Brown replaced all of it with a long picnic table — the former Jesuit seminarian calls it a "monastic table" — and benches.

It's apparently supposed to convey discipline and austerity, although the setup cost in the range of $7,500.

I'm thinking that if this is the table he and Republican legislators tried to negotiate around last winter, it's no wonder everyone walked away without closing a deal. The new/old governor has similar furniture in his Sacramento loft, where he occasionally wined and dined GOP lawmakers.

Whatever. Brown said one important thing he learned in his first year back as governor after a 28-year absence is that these Republicans simply will not vote for a tax increase — or even vote to put the question on the ballot.

"I'll meet with the Republicans. I find them sociable and pleasant," the Democrat said. But the political problem in California and the nation is the lousy economy. "Politics works when everything is good. When you have to sacrifice in lean times, then it's difficult."

Brown said he'll schmooze more in 2012 with Democrats. This year, as governors tend to do, he seemed to take members of his own party for granted. And privately, some are among his biggest critics.

"There's tension between the Legislature and the governor. That's the way the process works," the career pol observed. "But it also works when you can form relationships. Those relationships are based sometimes on appointments" — known as spoils — "sometimes on signing bills" — called rewards and punishment — "sometimes on friendships, social relations."

"You have to do all of that. That's part of being a governor. It's not just laying your mark on the ground and saying, 'Here I stand.' Reagan didn't do that. No governor who's successful does that. I don't do that either."

Relationships or not, however, Brown intends to bypass the Legislature next year and go directly to the November ballot with an initiative to raise income taxes on the rich and sales taxes on everyone. In drafting the proposal, his goal was to keep it simple.

"Simple is good. Complexity gives fodder to the opposition."

Without the nearly $7 billion annually his tax hike would generate, Brown warned, the necessary spending cuts "will be very, very drastic." Even with the tax increases "it's going to be unpleasant.… We're cutting back to where we were at the time of [Gov.] Reagan."

If voters reject his tax proposal, what will be their message? "The skepticism about public service is very deep…. If people vote it down, they will have concluded that the common institution that we call government is not something they want to invest in….

"You need a certain minimum unity throughout the country, throughout California or a local community. And if fragmentation reaches a point, you get much worse trouble."

Would he still want to be governor in such a depressing situation? "I don't want to not be governor," he answered with a grin.

Although he has filled half the $25-billion deficit hole he inherited, Brown said, "it may take a term or two before we complete the job."

So is he committed to running for another term in 2014? "Not at this point," the 73-year-old replied. "I don't know how I'm going to feel in a couple of years because this could get pretty tiring or frustrating.

"So far it's very exhilarating and exciting. I mean, I can't tell you how much I like being governor of California…. No matter what you write and what they do here, I still enjoy it."

If he's able, there's no way Brown doesn't run for a fourth term.

But first, there's next year. Brown volunteered that he intends to address the murky issues of water and education. If he has anything specific in mind, however, the governor didn't reveal it. He implied that his ideas haven't yet jelled.

On education, Brown called himself "a reformed reformer. While I want to make things better, I don't want to fall into the trap of reform for the sake of reform. Education is hard sledding."

Added the former Oakland mayor who started two charter schools: "Government has limited power when it comes to altering the impact of family breakdown."

He's somewhat of a fatalist. And he used a sprinkler analogy. A governor, he said, is "like a ping-pong ball sitting on a sprinkler. He's not in charge of the water. The water goes up, you go up. The water goes down, you go down. You're kind of a bouncing ball here."

Brown clearly enjoyed batting around questions bounced off him by reporters. He should do it more often — and all over the state, not only with reporters but with civic groups. But not on wood benches.

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