05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET | Updated Jul 25, 2011

Jerry Brown Returns (Again!) Only to Drop Back Into Stealth Mode

Governor Jerry Brown is back. Again. For the third time. And not a moment too soon, as California needs to solve its chronic budget crisis and, after a Supreme Court ruling, deal with its chronic prison crisis. But will Brown try, once again, to do it all behind the scenes?

First, of course, he executed a spectacular political comeback, capped off by his landslide victory last November over the biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history. (You can click here for my compendium of articles laying out the re-emergence of Jerry Brown as governor of California.) Brown celebrated briefly, then promptly disappeared for months into the underbrush of inside baseball politics, in interminable negotiations to try to solve California's chronic budget crisis, making only a handful of public appearances. Not surprisingly, his standing in the polls suffered from his absence from the spotlight, as did support for his plans.When he surfaced at the end of March, nearly three weeks past his March 10th deadline for a budget deal, it was to announce that he had ended negotiations with Republican legislators.

In what looks like the defining TV ad of his landslide election campaign last fall, Jerry Brown talks about tough choices for tough times.

He then engaged in a round of public appearances, seeing his standing in the polls go up, and have some big appearances on tap... only to pull back again as he underwent a relatively common procedure for a non-metastasizing skin cancer. Last week, none the worse for wear -- which was no surprise as I'd spoken with him while he was conducting business in private and he had the same energy he's had for the decades I've known him -- Brown resurfaced to present the annual May revision of the budget proposal.

But since that appearance, a wide-ranging press conference laced with his trademark humor, he's been mostly back behind the scenes, with only two brief appearances in Sacramento and none around the state, unusual for a governor looking for support for his budget. Is he repeating past mistakes?

Brown ran into three very significant problems very early on.

First, he assumed that he could make a deal by dint of endless behind-the-scenes negotiations. He set March 10th as his target date for the deal. Which, of course, has long since come and gone.

Second, in his mono-focus on the inside game, Brown completely ignored the outside game. He brought no public pressure to bear, either from the governorship or from interested parties, on Republican legislators.

Third, he neglected his own public profile, making only a handful of public appearances, virtually none of them outside Sacramento, which most Californians have long since learned to tune out. As a result, his polling numbers went down, substantially lower than they should have for someone who won a landslide victory over the biggest-spending non-presidential campaign in American history.

His numbers improved after he began making some public appearances around the state, following the failure of negotiations at the end of March. But then came another interregnum period.

To his credit, Brown did understand that dealing with Republican legislative leaders was not an especially good use of time.

Before the legislature became thoroughly dysfunctional, his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, spent large amounts of time in lengthy sessions with the Democratic and Republican leaders of the two legislative houses. These are the so-called "Big Five" sessions.

But as Schwarzenegger's second term as governor went on, the Republican legislative leadership became more and more conservative. Well, it went from very conservative to extremely conservative.

It was a very odd development.

Schwarzenegger won a landslide re-election in November 2006, crushing Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides, 56% to 39%, running a centrist campaign emphasizing infrastructure development, green energy technology, and the state's landmark climate change program. His fellow Republicans, hewing to a decidedly rightward agenda, were mostly crushed.

Schwarzenegger gave a high-profile speech to the California Republican Party convention in Palm Springs in the fall of 2007, which I previewed on New West Notes, urging Republicans to halt their rightward march if they hoped to be competitive in elections outside safe Republican districts.

Billionaire Meg Whitman said "anything was possible" in California when she first moved here. California is beginning to recover, with the same governor it had back then.

The delegates mostly sat on their hands. They came alive only after Schwarzenegger departed the stage, replaced by Texas Governor Rick Perry, who delivered the far right red meat they longed to hear.

But Jerry Brown doesn't have to win over a party that seems determined to become a very large cult; he just needs four of its votes. Four people willing to compromise in order to keep California moving forward. (And it is moving forward, despite the naysayers, with the economy beginning to recover and fresh state revenues beginning to flow.) Four people mindful of a new era of open primaries and non-gerrymandered districts. Four people who won't be cowed by talk radio yakkers, blowhard bloggers, or professional anti-government lobbyists of the Grover Norquist ilk.

Which Brown can get with the inside game. But he needs to keep his public standing elevated in order to win the popular approval he wants for his budget plans, in either a special election or in a regular election next year.

I see the Republican votes there to be had for Brown's budget compromise and tax extension, with a subsequent public vote on the matter.

It's not really in their interest to try to get a deal on public pension reform shoehorned into the solution to the near-term budget crisis. With widespread public concern, they are much better off using it as their own issue for an initiative, rather than taking it off the table and allowing Democrats credit.

A state spending limit, which Brown favors, is another matter.

In his press conference last week, which I watched via webcast, Brown made it clear that the recent bump in revenue, reflective of an improving economy that his right-wing Republican opponents kept claiming was, if anything, getting worse, is no solution to state government's woes, merely a palliative with respect to a structural deficit.

His new estimate is that California, despite the many doomsayers out there, is going to reap a $6.6 billion gain in revenue over a 13-month period, $2.5 billion of which is already in. But that simply relying on that is no solution at all.

Brown now reckons the current budget deficit, estimated at $26.6 billion when he took office, at a little under $10 billion. His revised budget proposal, which contains a $1.2 billion reserve, requires $10.8 billion in solutions.

Governor Jerry Brown announced on March 29th that he had ended negotiations with Republican legislators on his state budget compromise. He hasn't done a YouTube talk since.

He is also proposing $3 billion in additional spending on public schools, whose spending per pupil has been sliding for years. The schools are still owed billions more under the state's Prop 98 requirements.

And he proposes to pay down what he calls "the wall of debt" that state government has acquired over the years, which will bring the cost of operating the government down by reducing the vast sums paid out in debt service.

And he proposes to eliminate dozens of state boards and commissions, and to continue consolidating some state agencies, as well as sell several state properties which serve no function in state government, thus not requiring expensive leaseback arrangements. They include the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Oakland's Montclair Golf Course, and Sacramento's Capital Area Development Authority.

"California's economy is growing, but we still face a $10 billion structural deficit and a wall of debt for years to come," said Brown. "California's finances were plunged into turmoil by the Great Recession and a decade of short-term fixes and fiscal gimmicks. This is not the time to delay or evade. This is the time to put our finances in order."

As a result, he's continuing his insistence on extending 2009 emergency tax increases for five years, but eliminating one year of the income tax extension. He is also sticking to his pledge for a public vote on the matter, which would now have to come sometime after June, Republicans having blocked any ability for that vote to take place, and said he supports a state spending limit.

When might such a ratifying election take place? Brown mentioned the early fall as one possibility.

Brown noted that if Republican legislators continue blocking his move to do away with redevelopment agencies, that will add nearly $2 billion to the current deficit. He is allowing enterprise zones to continue, but only allowing tax credits for new jobs.

Brown enacted billions in state budget cuts on March 24th.

While Barack Obama, who carried California with ease in 2008 and looks to do the same in 2012, is in Europe dealing with affairs of state, Brown, who mounted two runner-up campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination -- and might have done more still had he run for the U.S. Senate in 1992, which is another story -- is stuck with the usual lousy state of affairs in California's dysfunctional state capitol.

The Republican "alternative," all few paragraphs of which you can read for yourself on my blog, is laughable. Something knocked off on some cocktail napkins, or so it would appear.

Brown has run up against the same intractable dynamics that bedeviled Schwarzenegger --whose final job approval rating as governor, as the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reported in December, was 32% -- in his last years as governor. An ultra-government faction that wants to keep expanding government vs. an anti-government faction that wants to contract government. Add in term limits, gerrymandered safe districts for hyper-partisans, ballot box budgeting, and an odd constitution that cuts a tax on a majority vote but takes a two-thirds vote to raise one, and there you go. Or, more accurately, don't go.

The state's fiscal problems date back to the late '90s and early noughties, with each faction pushing program expansions and tax cuts based on a dot-com bubble gone bust.

And Brown, like Schwarzenegger before him, is left to deal with a Republican Party leadership which has gone from very conservative to extremely conservative.

He also must deal, perhaps more immediately, with an impending U.S. Supreme Court decision which may mandate major releases from California's long overcrowded prisons. Brown has anticipated this to a large extent with his realignment policy of shifting lesser offenders to local jails.

But the legislature, typically, has not acted on this.

Schwarzenegger began taking steps to reduce the prison population five years ago, shipping thousands of prisoners out of state, increasing early release opportunities, and creating a higher standard for sending ex-convicts back to prison. But the backlog was quite large, and the state's sentencing laws, many imposed by popular initiatives, tie a governor's hands.

All of which is to say that this is another example of the fact that there is plenty for Brown to speak out about in public that is not simply related to progress in state budget negotiations, or lack of same. And plenty that Californians should be hearing from their governor on in his role as the state's civic leader.

Hiding his light under a bushel keeps Californians from seeing how talented and engaging their new/renewed governor is. And it's bad for Brown, as well. He needs as much clout with the voters as he can get to do what he needs to do. When he is out of sight and out of mind, he slips in the polls and looks less formidable than he should to the deeply entrenched interests who have California's Capitol tied up in knots.

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