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William Bradley

William Bradley

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Jerry Brown 2.0: How's It Going?

Posted: 01/31/11 11:58 PM ET

So how's Jerry Brown 2.0 going? The new/renewed governor of California won a landslide victory over billionaire Meg Whitman 90 days ago, took over from Arnold Schwarzenegger four weeks ago, and has worked on laying out an austerity-with-revenues budget plan and slowly building his administration ever since.

It's going, well, well enough. Well enough to begin to straighten out the state's chronic budget crisis in the first half of this year? We'll see.

Part one of Governor Jerry Brown's State of the State address.

In his State of the State address Monday evening, Brown discussed his budget proposal, which dispenses with past gimmicks used to paper over ongoing deficits, offending left and right alike in the process with deep program cuts and a continuation of the 2009 tax hikes. He called the Republican Party's strategy to try to block a public vote on his plans "unconscionable," noting the irony of Republican efforts to block democracy as pro-democracy protesters in Egypt and Tunisia fire the world's imagination. He also pointed out that the naysayers are continuing their practice of providing no alternatives.

But how is he really doing? Is he allowing various interests to predictably vent and act out before joining in common sense common cause? (Incidentally, opposition to major cuts and support for a tax hike-only budget is well under 10%.) Or is he being overwhelmed by disparate power centers united only by self-interested opposition?

Brown brings a more informal style than Schwarzenegger, a breath of fresh air for the remaining press, which frequently chafed at Schwarzenegger's celebrity and his not infrequently over-produced style. Brown, who tends to the decidedly under-produced, has replaced the most famous state or provincial governor in world history. Not that Brown is exactly a stranger to fame or celebrity himself.

In laying out a budget plan that calls for very big program cuts coupled with sustained tax increases from two years ago, Brown is bringing some potent symbolism to the non-festive party. He's instituted big cuts in the gubernatorial staff and has ordered even bigger cuts in cell phones and cars used by state employees.

Brown knows full well that the prevalent myth that a big fraction of state spending is waste is just that, a prevalent myth. Which would be the polite way of putting it. But he also knows that drastically cutting back on seeming perks creates a powerful impression.

As former Governor Gray Davis told me last week in one of our regular talks: "What he's proposing is a very bold program. In the past, leaders haven't wanted to grapple with the reality of having only 75% of the revenue needed for the programs. That's got to change."

And so Brown has proposed a combination of big cuts and big tax extensions, which has advocates on all sides screaming and defending their turf. He says the tough medicine is needed now to prevent worse things to come.

He's getting a lot of push-back from most quarters, each of which insists that sacrifice is needed, just sacrifice somewhere else. And a far right-dominated Republican legislative contingent continues to insist that it's against any new revenues and wants a cuts-only budget, though as usual it refuses to spell out any such budget.

What needs to be done in California state government is not mysterious. It's much like giving a real answer to the question of how best to lose weight and get into shape. You eat less, and you exercise more.

Getting a sclerotic Capitol and state political system to acknowledge the obvious and move forward is the trick.

Brown's work has almost all been behind the scenes since the election. In the past 90 days, Brown has made only one public appearance outside Sacramento or Oakland, the two cities in which he now lives. That was his budget crisis forum on education at UCLA, back on December 14th.

His State of the State address was the latest in decades. He blew off the customary January gubernatorial address to the Sacramento Press Club. His press staff is very small and he doesn't have a communications director.

Part two of Brown's State of the State address.

Of course, the reality is that in the campaign, Brown was his own campaign chief, chief strategist, media director, you name it. But his job approval is under-performing his election performance, and he's going to have to do far more to sell his approach to the voters.

The latest Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll has some good news for Brown, and some not so good news.

Amidst the not so good news, Californians remain very ignorant about where the money goes in state government, and where it comes from. Less than 10% of likely voters know that K-12 education, which most don't want to cut at all, is the greatest part of spending, and the income tax is the top source of revenue.

A big majority favors his plan for a special election to deal with the chronic state budget crisis, some 66% of likely voters, 16 points higher than the figure for the 2009 special election on the budget. Most like his budget proposal, though they see the pain in it, and most are in favor of his budget election package, which includes continuing expiring tax hikes on sales, income, and car registration. Many more, though still a minority, think the state is heading in the right direction again. And Brown's own job approval rating is decidedly positive, though his job approval is under 50%.

Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, finished with a 32% job approval rating in the last PPIC poll, conducted in December among those who voted in the November election. That was up by a third from where it was in July.

Brown's job approval among likely voters is 15 points higher than Schwarzenegger's, at 47%. It's 41% among all Californians. His disapproval rating is only 20% among likely voters, and 19% among all Californians.

Brown's job approval under-performs his election landslide. He crushed billionaire Meg Whitman in November 54% to 41%, winning more votes than any other gubernatorial candidate in American history.

Why is his job approval lower than his election performance? Well, it's a skeptical era, and he has only just been inaugurated little more than three weeks ago.

Another reason is that he's been barely seen in public since his election.

In fact, he has only made one public appearance outside the two cities in which he lives -- Oakland and Sacramento -- since he won his historic third term as governor of California. That was his budget crisis forum on education at UCLA in December. And he has made only a few public appearances in the capital, including his own inauguration on January 3rd.

Governor Jerry Brown has made few public appearances since his inauguration on January 3rd.

Brown has spent most of his time behind the scenes, pulling together his program. And it is a program that is finding a lot of favor with the public. Which is not surprising, since it's designed to do so.

Some 54% of likely voters favor Brown's cuts and revenues budget plan, including the continuation of temporary tax hikes for another five years.

73% favor his "realignment" of services from the state to the local level, a shift of revenue and responsibility.

63% back his phase out of redevelopment agencies and enterprise zones in favor of redirecting revenues to core services, which has to come as a blow to the mayors and other city officials who've met recently with Brown to protest his plans.

And a big majority favors raising corporate taxes to help balance the budget and preserve core services, a whopping 55% of likely voters, up sharply from just a few months ago.

But that's not in Brown's plan.

So we get to the not so good news for the renewed governor. The taxes that are in his plan -- sales, income, and vehicle registration -- are each supported by little more than a third of likely voters.

To the extent that voters focus on the specific taxes in the plan -- or see them as tax increases rather than tax extensions -- the plan is in trouble, even though it starts out, in general terms, in fairly good shape.

And big majorities are opposed to the specific areas cut by Brown's budget proposal. Of course, this gets into the ignorance, willed or otherwise, of the body politic.

Because the only budget area that most voters want to cut is corrections. A plurality of voters, some 41%, believe that prisons and associated spending accounts for the biggest chunk of state spending. But actually it's the smallest of the major areas, at around 10%. And increased spending in recent years has been forced by federal judges, with the overall shape of the system largely determined by, yes, public votes to crack down on crime.

In this key TV ad from the fall campaign, Brown declared that California is "in a real mess."

Upwards of two-thirds of California votes also favor a state spending limit and a rainy day fund. The former was proposed a few times by Schwarzenegger; the latter is a Schwarzenegger proposal that passed the Legislature and is on the 2012 ballot.

Meanwhile, perhaps mindful of the long intractable political situation, Standard & Poor's maintained the same negative outlook as before for California's credit rating, expressing skepticism that all the needed changes can happen in the short time frame Brown calls for.

The fight over redevelopment is a classic example.

Originally intended to reduce urban blight and fight poverty, urban redevelopment has mushroomed into a vast complex of developers and politicians promoting shopping malls, auto malls, sports stadiums, and the like. Redevelopment agencies now collect more than $5 billion in property tax revenue. The state Legislative Analyst Office says that's a whopping 12% of property taxes in the state, up from only 4% a quarter century ago.

According to the LAO, "there is no reliable evidence that redevelopment projects attract businesses to the state or increase overall economic development in California." Instead, they shift economic activity from one place to another.

Brown wants to redirect the revenue to core local services, which otherwise are threatened. But many politicians, from both parties, love the big pot of development money that redevelopment agencies give them.

They can do all kinds of favors for supporters, and even some good with specific projects. But does that outweigh the greater good in a time of scarcity?

State Controller John Chiang, concerned about ongoing tardiness in getting a realistic budget enacted, is conducting an audit of 18 redevelopment agencies around the state. That should prove very interesting.


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