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Back on the National Stage? Jerry Brown Brings An Incomplete Story

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Governor Jerry Brown is in Washington for a round of meetings and appearances on CBS's Face the Nation and at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, where he and First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown will be at the Newsweek table, along with General David Petraeus, the Iraq War and Afghan War commander-turned-CIA director, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon.

While Brown is not exactly Arnold-like in his round of public appearances, or even Jerry-like in this particular incarnation of himself, he is getting out and about more than he did last year. After skipping appearances in the East during 2011, this is his second trip of the year to Washington. He was there in February around the National Governors Association conference.

It's also a good opportunity to articulate what he's doing as governor of California, in an historic third term, to a national and international audience. California is safe territory for Barack Obama's re-election, but an important proving ground for new energy and transportation initiatives.

What will he say? I can certainly guess, but we know what Brown, twice runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination, is saying when he says it.

Brown did appear on NBC's Meet the Press in February, but with the governors association in town, unavoidably ended up being paired opposite controversial Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. This time he goes one-on-one with veteran CBS News host Bob Schieffer.

Brown prepared to fly the Bear Flag in the Beltway after releasing some big new plans over the past week, notably in regard to downsizing the state prison system and rightsizing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in state buildings.

Brown's prison plan would cut general fund spending from 11.1% of the total to 7.5%. It would also cut $4.1 billion in authorized bond spending for prison construction, saving $2.2 billion in operating costs and debt service.

The moves are being made not only to cut costs in California's still strapped state budget, but to meet federal court demands to reduce over-crowding.

Brown's executive order on energy use and emissions in state buildings will cast these buildings even more in the role of providing the green model.

By 2020, half of all new state buildings will be "zero net energy facilities," i.e., carbon neutral. By 2025, all new state buildings will have to be carbon neutral. Meanwhile, state facilities have to cut the power they buy from utilities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And larger buildings and renovations of existing facilities will have to generate their power on-site using renewable energy systems, unless it's not feasible.

Meanwhile, Brown and his forces keep pushing on his compromise November revenue initiative, steaming toward qualification.

Brown, as readers know, was prompted to join forces with a left/labor coalition pushing a steeply progressive "millionaire's tax." (This, after legislative Republicans, headed ever farther to the right, balked last year at a grand compromise.) As a result, his ballot initiative got more progressive in terms of the impact on income taxes and reduced the amount of revenue coming from what is now only a quarter-cent sales tax.

As a result, backing for the new Brown initiative jumped from what had been for the original Brown initiative, as the USC/Los Angeles Times poll, conducted by top national Republican and Democratic pollsters, clearly showed.

At 64% support, it looks very good for Brown and allies. And major institutional opposition is not emerging so far.

Now there is a new Public Policy Institute of California poll (which was actually taken during the first week of April) showing only 54% support for the initiative, with 39% opposed. The problem isn't with higher taxes on the wealthy, it's with a sales tax hike for all.

However, this poll poses the question on Brown's initiative using a question leading with the same formal title and summary it used before, when it got essentially the same results.

This poll is not a problem for Brown's initiative. But other initiatives moving on to the ballot -- by which I do not mean heiress Molly Munger's zombie income tax hike on nearly all (opposed by nearly 60% in this latest poll, as in other polling) -- may be problematic.

Initiatives to abolish the death penalty and alter the state's three-strikes and you're out sentencing law will challenge Brown's ability to stay focused on his measure.

Brown is a longtime opponent of capital punishment, though as California's attorney general he upheld the existing law.

With a thicket of complication to get through on every case, there hasn't been an execution in California since Arnold Schwarzenegger's first term as governor. Executions are currently being held up by a judicial ruling that the state's existing lethal injection procedure constitutes cruel and unusual punishment because the chemical combination that has been in use causes suffering and what has been deemed an alternative approach is not available.

How hot will this initiative be? I'm not sure.

Decades ago, when crime as more of an issue, it would be very hot indeed. Today, my sense is that there is a fatigue with the issue. While there is ongoing support for the death penalty in polls, it's undermined by the notion of life imprisonment without parole -- though whether that is more appetizing for the inmate than execution seems an obvious question -- and a sense of cynicism about executions ever happening anyway.

That, however, could change with a sensational murder.

Most advanced industrial nations, of course, do not have the death penalty.

In any event, Brown's bigger challenges seem to lie in the state's chronic fiscal crises. While prospects are good for his November revenue initiative, with no significant institutional opposition having emerged -- unless you count echo chamber LA radio yakkers John & Ken and the reflexive anti-tax lobby known as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which I do not -- state government needs to demonstrate that it's gotten the message about greater efficiency in its stewardship of public funds.

But Democratic legislators have balked at Brown's next round of budget cuts, despite mounting evidence that the current budget is out of balance. That's a problem that Brown's predecessors, Schwarzenegger and Brown's own one-time chief of staff, Gray Davis, also shared.

And, despite assurances from some legislative leaders, there's continued foot-dragging on Brown's proposed public pension reforms.

That would-be pension reformers fell flat earlier this year in their bid to launch an initiative didn't help Brown's task in the least. Without that sort of outside pressure, legislators inside their own echo chamber feel less of an impetus to act.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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