OAKLAND, Calif. — Governor-elect Jerry Brown acknowledged Wednesday that he faces a daunting task in returning to the office he held more than a generation ago, but said he wants to enlist lawmakers from both parties and voters in tackling the state budget deficit estimated at $12 billion.
In a post-election news conference, the former two-term governor said his first step will be to meet with Republican and Democratic legislative leaders Thursday in Sacramento to begin discussions.
Still, the current Democratic state attorney general is sure to face a polarized Legislature and a state still reeling from the recession when he is sworn in to replace Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger next January.
"Going forward, I would say it's daunting. But California has always come back, from probably at least seven recessions since World War II," Brown said as he stood on a wooden coffee table to address reporters at his downtown Oakland headquarters.
California has faced deep budget deficits for several years, forcing Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to make tens of billions of dollars in program cuts and raise taxes temporarily. Despite those measures, the red ink persists.
The general fund this year is $15 billion less than it was just three years ago.
How Brown will accomplish his goal of returning California to prosperity is unclear. He has not offered any detailed budget plans, and his critics worry he will want to raise taxes with a ballot measure.
Brown sought to downplay that possibility, noting California voters just rejected an initiative that would have levied an $18 vehicle license fee to fund state parks.
"I would say the electorate is in no mood to add to their burdens," Brown said.
Instead, Brown hopes to cut wasteful spending and lower-priority programs – which he did not identify – to save money. He also expects more revenue to flow into state coffers as California's economy rebounds.
If that doesn't happen, Brown acknowledged, "We're going to have a very difficult, painful and possibly acrimonious process."
He also wants to travel California and hold a "civic dialogue" about the kind of government California voters want.
"It's not just what the legislators say or what the governor can muscle them into doing by a vote or two. What do the people of California want in terms of the key elements of California government?" Brown said. "The voters ultimately have to say, this is what I want."
Putting any measure on the ballot through the Legislature requires a two-thirds vote, which means Brown would have to enlist some Republican lawmakers who are not keen on placing tax or fee measures before voters.
Even so, GOP legislators are looking for common ground with the incoming governor, said state Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, who spoke Wednesday with Brown.
"He just expressed his desire to want to sit down, to discuss the problems and what ideas we have," said Dutton, who plans to fly to Sacramento on Thursday. "I told him, by all means. Republicans stand ready to help solve the problems of California."
While Brown intends to invite Republicans and Democrats to offer solutions, he isn't naive enough to think decisions will come easily.
"We're all going to get in a big circle and sing kumbaya, play the banjo, and we'll light some candles. They're going to walk out of there saying, 'God, how did this happen? I didn't know we all agreed,'" he said over the weekend, before adding: "No, that's a dream."
Brown bucked national GOP momentum Tuesday when he handily defeated former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, who spent nearly $142 million of her money on her first run for public office. Unofficial returns showed him beating Whitman by 12 percentage points.
At his Wednesday news conference, Brown returned to a key theme of his campaign – that the nation's most populous state needs a seasoned public official, not a political novice, to step in and solve its financial troubles.
Brown is familiar with tough budget times.
When he became governor in 1975, he preached an "era of limits" and told Californians to lower their expectations of what government could do for them as the state faced a nearly double-digit unemployment rate and high inflation.
Fellow Democrats were unhappy with Brown's conservative spending, which during his tenure mirrored that of his predecessor, Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan.
California has changed since Brown left the top post 28 years ago. It has 13.5 million more residents and a budget that has nearly quadrupled, from $22.8 billion to $82.9 billion. Former Gov. Gray Davis said Brown will adapt.
Davis, who served as Brown's chief of staff during his first stint as governor, credited Brown with building a state surplus, lowering unemployment and getting on-time budgets through the Legislature.
"You can't be dealt a harder hand," Davis said about Brown's next four years. "But I'm confident by the end of his term, the state will have turned around and we'll be moving in the right direction. He's got very good credentials as a financial steward."
Associated Press writers Don Thompson and Juliet Williams contributed to this report.