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Jerry Brown Pulls a Trigger, Invokes Rome, and Focuses on Climate and Initiatives

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Governor Jerry Brown is in the midst of a very consequential week, pulling the trigger on mid-year "trigger" cuts in the state budget, hosting a major conference on climate change, and dealing with 2012 initiative politics. He also commented for the first time on the Occupy Wall Street movement, drawing an historical parallel to Rome.

As long expected, Brown on Tuesday found himself having to pull the trigger on mid-fiscal year budget cuts occasioned by lower than forecast California state revenues. But for less than feared following a report last month by the Legislative Analyst Office.

The cuts total about $1 billion, only half what the LAO anticipated (and far less what the shortfall was in June). They come after a significant improvement in the last month's revenue.

As a result, K-12 education, which was projected for a $1.1 billion hit in the LAO assessment, will receive a cut of less than $80 million, thus avoiding the need to reduce the school year. But higher education and health programs take another hit.

Brown had a number of pithy observations to make in the course of presenting this mid-course correction for the state budget in a noon press conference in the State Capitol.

Quoting an old Latin proverb, which he translated and paraphrased as "The state cannot give what it does not have," Brown noted that he has learned an important lesson since the first time he was governor: That fiscal challenges are a constant in the governorship.

"It's always going to be managing discontent and rising claims on a reluctant taxpayer," he said. "That kind of defines the job."

Discussing the political landscape over which he will wage a campaign to pass a November 2012 initiative to raise $7 billion a year for five years with higher taxes on the wealthy and a half-cent sales tax hike -- which the new Public Policy Institute of California poll shows has real promise of success -- Brown noted that the public is not in a happy mood.

"The electorate is frustrated, discontent, not too impressed by government at any level," he said. "We're pretty polarized across the country," he observed. "I will find places where we agree when we can."

He also discussed, in very general terms, ongoing talks with other revenue initiative proponents, saying that at least one group is open to allowing his plan to move forward without the greater degree of confusion that multiple initiatives would entail. I discussed this yesterday in my regular Monday Morning Quarterback feature on New West Notes, based on my own conversations with initiative promoters.

For the first time, Brown specifically addressed the Occupy Wall Street movement, within the context of his initiative drive and the overall political situation.

"America will have a hard time functioning if the inequality continues," he said. "But reversing it in the face of globalization and technological innovation will be very difficult."

Then the old UC Berkeley classics major harkened back to the history underlying his Latin education.

"In Rome there was the old fight between the aristocrats and the plebeians," he noted. "It took a few hundred years for Rome to fall apart."

Here, incidentally, is the budget trigger cuts document.

Brown had just gotten some very good news from the latest Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll. His tax initiative plan is favored by nearly two-thirds of California voters.

Brown's job approval rating is at 46%, the expected range it's been in essentially since shortly after his election. Good enough for this political environment, and better than anyone else, though less than it could have been.

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's job approval rating in this poll a year ago was at 32%, a recovery from the low 20s where it had been early in the summer. And higher than the oft cited 23%, which is from a late summer Field Poll.

With the mid-course budget correction done, Brown can focus on potentially competing revenue initiatives.

I believe, based on discussions I had last week and the week before with well-placed sources among the potential initiative promoters, that the field will begin to clear. I expect the Think Long Committee of billionaires and former officeholders to avoid going to head to head with Brown's initiative. As I've pointed out, Think Long can't win next November with its plan, which cuts taxes for the wealthy and large corporations and extends the sales tax to all manner of services.

I also don't see how the California Federation of Teachers-led tax the rich initiative for education and some social services moves very far ahead, with the great bulk of the labor movement and the Democratic coalition backing Brown.

That leaves the imponderable of heiress Molly Munger's -- she's the daughter of Warren Buffett's longtime business partner -- plan to raise everyone's income tax to fund the schools. Which also is unlikely to win, but she may not yet understand that.

Brown is also readying his conference on climate change, taking place, as I I reported and discussed back in October on my New West Notes blog, Wednesday in San Francisco.

The Governor's Conference on Extreme Climate Risks and California's Future, at the lovely California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, will be on a much smaller scale than former Schwarzenegger's three Governors' Global Climate Summits and will focus on the need to mitigate the effects of climate change as well as efforts to prevent it.

It comes in the wake of the disappointing UN global climate summit in Durban, South Africa.

Schwarzenegger, who last week won the Renewable Energy Leader of the Decade award from the American Council on Renewable Energy, had been mentioned as a likely attendee at the UN climate summit, but did not go. He didn't go to the UN climate summit last year in Cancun, Mexico, either.

He was last at the annual climate summit in 2009, in Copenhagen, Denmark, which was a cobbled-together vague semi-success where Schwarzenegger announced that he would form the R20 group of subnational governments around the world to work on renewable energy and climate change issues.

The Brown conference's setting, a wonderful facility founded just a few years after the California Gold Rush in the middle of the 19th century, when Brown's ancestors came to the Golden State, is fitting for this governor who is a fan of H.G. Wells.

The first time Brown was governor, his administration allowed the makers of 1979′s charming Time After Time to film at the California Academy of Sciences.

In the story of the film, H.G. Wells actually does invent a time machine. Which, after Jack the Ripper uses it to escape capture in Victorian era London, Wells uses himself to go after the gentleman murderer, who turns out to be one of his circle of friends.

But he finds himself in then contemporary San Francisco, for the contents of his London home are on display in an H.G. Wells exhibition at, yes, the California Academy of Sciences.

Not long after, in the spring of 1980, Brown gave one of the seminal speeches of his career -- which I wrote about at length last December here on the Huffington Post-- during his second presidential campaign.

Directed as a live television special by Francis Ford Coppola, it was entitled The Shape of Things To Come, named after a famous H.G. Wells novel.

The shape of things to come for Brown over the next year looks very interesting indeed.

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

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