A year into his latest go-round as governor of California, Jerry Brown doesn't stand much on ceremony these days. That was evident even before the snafu which caused the roll-out of his state budget five days earlier than scheduled (and delayed this about to roll-out piece). I talked with Brown over the holidays about how things have gone, how they are going, and how they (he hopes) will go.
President Barack Obama will carry California. That's not in question. What is in question is California's future.
Brown made it very clear that he intends to keep thinking big even in a time of limits. He wants to push hard for California to continue its leadership role on renewable energy, green tech, and climate change, develop future-oriented transit and water systems, and restructure California government, both by making sense of its sprawling agencies and by realigning services to bring them closer to the people who benefit.
And all of it in the midst of digging out from under the wreckage of the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression, in a massively hyper-partisan era, necessitating huge budget cuts and the pursuit of new revenues. A pursuit foiled last year by last ditch right-wing Republican efforts, despite months of intensive personal negotiation by Brown.
Brown celebrated, if that's the word, the first anniversary of the inauguration of the first third term California governor in 60 years, and only the second in history, this week. By doing, well, not so much. Not a word from the Governor's Office, and no mention elsewhere of the date itself, aside from my New West Notes blog.
The stark minimalism was in keeping with Brown's inaugural itself a year ago, and with most of his governorship to date. He pursues an austere aesthetic, in keeping with his background as a former Jesuit seminarian who studied the classics as a student at UC Berkeley and Zen Buddhism as an adult.
If Brown isn't standing much on ceremony, how is he standing on results to date, and looking forward to the new year?
When I spoke with Brown over the holidays, he was upbeat, something he has not always been in his new/renewed governorship.
But he was philosophical as well.
While we discussed the overall, and his hopes for a continuation of California's historic role as a leading edge of change, he emphasized the momentary. "I'm doing things one day at a time," he said.
"I have to get things put in place," he explained, "and it will take another year to do that." As that gets done, "we can move on water, education, more realignment, all the other big things."
With regard to California's tangled governance, "there is a state and local confusion that's been building up over 30 years," he noted.
Brown and his allies are working to clear the path for his revenue initiative, which he wants to balance another tough round of budget cutting by temporarily raising income taxes on high-income Californians and sales taxes on all Californians. As I wrote last month, the polling is promising, but an excellent campaign will be required, one that is not cluttered with too many competing measures.
"We have a decent chance on the initiative," Brown opined. "I think people will realize we need revenue."
But they want more cuts for credibility's sake. And there is the reality that the money isn't there now.
"It's going to be very challenging to make more reductions," he said. "Yeah, they'll be tough cuts in line with what other states are having to do. Not in line with what California has done in the last 25 years.
"There is in theory an unlimited number of things the state can provide but a far smaller number of things voters are willing to pay for."
"We're in a little bit of denial here still," he said of popular attitudes. "People think things can be done without money. They expect it. We have to bring things into alignment. States and nations are struggling all over, but California is better positioned than most."
"We're certainly better than most of Europe," he declared. "We've had this mortgage bubble; now we're into de-leveraging and re-balancing."
As part of what he calls getting things put into place, Brown pursued big budget cuts in 2011 and the extension of 2009's temporary tax hikes enacted by the legislature and then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he couldn't get Republicans to go along, despite months of talks and a full-court press personal charm offensive. How close he came is a very interesting question, but that's a matter, at least for now, for history.
"We took very important strides in the first year," he noted, with regard to eliminating much of the massive budget deficit. "This next year will be more difficult," as it will involve even tougher budget cuts, as well as the push for more revenue, "but we'll get it done."
Brown warmed, as always, to talk of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Policies which he pioneered in the 1970s and early 1980s, which were built upon by successors such as his former chief of staff Gray Davis and, especially, Arnold Schwarzenegger, have made California a world leader in renewable energy policy and have made the state's economy and population far more energy efficient than the US as a whole.
And, with climate change obviously accelerating, California's landmark program signed into law by Schwarzenegger is a beacon in the midst of national and global political chaos.
We discussed how some other states have fallen away from the Schwarzenegger-organized Western Climate Initiative, but Brown predicted that they will come back. "The science," he noted, "is still very sound," the greenhouse effect increasingly evident.
Brown is excited about California's plan to have 33 percent of its electric power come from renewable sources by the end of 2020. Davis established the first renewable portfolio standard for California. Schwarzenegger then accelerated and expanded the program. Now Brown is building on that.
"It's very challenging to get to 33 in 2020," he said. "The state is not an almighty powerful entity, but we are going to get there."
In the meantime, Brown has to "get there" on sorting out the state's fiscal disarray in this pivotal election year. And he has to better communicate what he is doing, for the near term with what has to be done to get the government's house in order, and for the longer term with his big vision for the California's future.
In terms of the nitty gritty, the erstwhile Governor Moonbeam is actually making a lot of progress. It is, ironically, on the communication and visionary side of things where there are problems. Ironic in that there are few people in public life who are more articulate, or interested in the future, than Jerry Brown.
This week he succeeded in his in-person appeal to the leaders of California's county supervisors association to drop their proposed November initiative which would have muddied the fiscal waters for distractable voters.
Brown raised $1.2 million for his proposed tax initiative for the November 2012 ballot in just the last two weeks of December.
He also has millions left over from his 2010 landslide win over billionaire Meg Whitman's biggest-spending non-presidential campaign in American history, but I suspect he will want to keep that in his re-election kitty. Not that he is announcing any plans.
He's won his big fight against the redevelopment agencies, the California Supreme Court last week having sided with Brown in his determination to redirect tax revenues from local redevelopment agencies to basic services. Local governments have grown accustomed to having big pots of money for favored developers and developments derived from property tax revenues. Among the biggest defenders of this big government/big money stew are Republican politicians, who choose to favor pork so long as they have control.
The legislature, now back in session, will undoubtedly entertain notions of reviving redevelopment in some form.
Brown has also rolled out an improved plan for high-speed rail and a well-regarded plan for reform of public pensions, and is reworking Schwarzenegger's water plan, the first such gotten through the legislature in decades.
However, he sat on billions in infrastructure bonds passed by Schwarzenegger that can boost the economy and create jobs.
Yet the key has been his work on the state's chronic budget crisis. There he lived up to the fundamental Zen precept of avoiding harm.
Which is true, in the sense of not worsening the state's fiscal situation. In fact, he greatly improved it, eliminating some $16 billion of the budget deficit.
But the cuts, necessitated by the reality of the situation, have done harm. Yet without that harm, at least in the short term, a solution will never be achieved.
However, it's not clear how much of what Brown is doing is penetrating in a deeper way, in the sense that people grasp the overall of what he is doing, even though his approval rating is good for this toxic environment.
Last month I asked one of my top political sources what he is hearing about Brown's governorship. He said he thought Brown is doing well on balance, and sketched out what he is doing in a rather familiar way. Too familiar. As it turned out, aside from me, no one in his rather vast network of contacts talks much about Brown, so he was mirroring my material back to me.
Where Schwarzenegger's governorship sometimes appeared over-produced, Brown's sometimes appears under-produced. As we saw with last month's climate change conference in San Francisco, as I discussed here on the Huffington Post.
Brown is doing a lot on climate and renewables, and even holds regular public events on renewables. But few know it, and there is little ongoing narrative.
Given the critical nature of California's role, and the success that Schwarzenegger, who spoke at Brown's conference, had in pulling together three big global climate summits, Brown would do well to enlist the former governor's efforts on a few such big promotional events.
And while we're on the question of California's former First Couple, it's a shame that the wildly successful annual women's conferences organized by former First Lady Maria Shriver have been dropped.
Anne Gust Brown, who plays a very different role, having in many respects managed her husband's campaign and now serving as special counsel to the governor, has different priorities. So why not have Shriver continue the women's conference, which brought global acclaim to the state, as a special emissary of the governor?
Brown can use the help where he finds it. He won't get much more from legislative Republicans.
California Senate Republican Leader Bob Dutton, a thorn in Brown's side all year, stepped down this week, succeeded by caucus chairman Bob Huff, who on Warren Olney's Which Way LA radio show with me last year said that, while he was for no new revenues to help get rid of what was then a $25 billion budget deficit, he also was not for an all-cuts budget. He was, he said for "$25 billion in reforms."
When I asked him what that meant beyond the sound of the words he'd just uttered, he couldn't say.
So Brown is likely to continue to get the usual hollow blocking rhetoric from the minority party, which nonetheless has super-minority power on revenue matters.
That was certainly the case when Brown had to scramble on Thursday when, thanks to a classic snafu -- someone inadvertently posted his California state budget proposal, scheduled to be unveiled in five days, online -- he was forced to hold a hastily called press conference.
The budget doesn't seem to have any major surprises in it, relying as it does on anticipated revenues from Brown's November tax initiative. If the initiative is defeated, it contains trigger cuts which will hit education pretty damn hard.
In the meantime, Brown is calling for more big cuts to welfare and human service programs, which legislative Democrats will balk at in hopes that more revenues emerge. My, doesn't that sound familiar?
Brown also calls for the elimination of another 3,000 or so state jobs, mostly in corrections.
And his plan would consolidate various state agencies, eliminating some departments and commissions outright.
The California Republican Party attacked Brown, for "supposedly devastating trigger cuts that mask his inability to make tough, reform-minded decisions. Brown is doubling down on the same ineffective strategies that pushed California into this mess. Californians have no reason to believe his budget is sincere; it lacks innovation as well as any meaningful structural reforms."
And this is all too familiar, too, as is the lack of any Republican alternative beyond invocation of the word "reform."
In this difficult environment, Brown has a big job ahead to bring his own expansive blend of pragmatism and reform home a winner. He's optimistic, and he has some good reason for optimism. But he needs to make a few adjustments in order to win through.
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes.