Jerry Brown's New Problem

06/03/2011 04:39 pm ET | Updated Aug 03, 2011

While California's chronic budget crisis continues, Governor Jerry Brown, once again, feels he is closing in on a solution. But he has a new problem to deal with.

Brown is dealing with an emerging problem with the largely dysfunctional state Legislature that goes beyond the constantly remarked upon difficulty with a do-nothing Republican legislative crew.

It's the Assembly Democrats.

First, very neatly demonstrating the Democratic part of California's long-running Capitol dysfunction, Assembly Democrats moved to try to reverse some of the state's recently approved budget cuts. Why? Because there is some new revenue. Do we know if it will continue onward into the future? No. Just as we did not during the dot-com boom. Can the money be used for other things? Yes. Like, for example, paying off debt, or paying for future needs.

Governor Jerry Brown announced on March 29th that he had ended negotiations with Republican legislators on his state budget compromise. But they are back on now.

Needless to say, Brown is not thrilled with his very short-sighted colleagues, who would expand the state's long-term spending base. It's not just the easily lampooned Party of No that created this chronic crisis.

Then the state Assembly passed Democratic legislation to end California's participation in a U.S. Department of Justice program in which arrestees' fingerprints are checked for immigration status. If someone is an illegal immigrant, he or she is deported. As state attorney general, Jerry Brown signed the agreement making California part of the program. As mayor of Oakland, Brown supported the idea.

With regard to the budget crisis we have major elements of the two parties once again defaulting to their core fantasy positions.

Not only are Republican legislators balking at actually solving the problem with tax extensions -- pretending instead that the economy, which they insisted was in the tank, will easily bail out the situation with new revenues -- Democrats in the Assembly are pursuing their opposite fantasy: More money means that already enacted cuts can be reversed.

This is exactly how the state government got into this trouble in the first place.

After months of negotiations, Brown has run up against the same intractable dynamics that bedeviled Arnold Schwarzenegger 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.

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 that went bust.

Now both factions have seized on a recent revenue burst to renew their default positions. But as Brown told me last year, he is trying to put state government back on a firm fiscal footing. And that requires a workout program in which long-term expenditures are reined in and long-term revenues are locked down.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision directing California to accelerate its reduction of chronic prison system overcrowding makes his tax extensions even more necessary to fund his proposed realignment of some basic correctional services back to local level.

Brown enacted billions in state budget cuts on March 24th. Since then, the state Legislature has accomplished little.

Brown has already proposed a plan to reduce the state prison inmate population by some 40,000 inmates, more than required by the Supreme Court. But the Legislature has not yet funded the plan, which requires tax extensions and realignment of public safety services to the local level, where most of the inmates would be housed.

For many years, the trick has been getting Republican votes for any tax increase. (The only time it worked was in 2009, when Schwarzenegger and Democratic and Republican legislative leaders cobbled together a compromise budget. Much of it was shot down in a special election and the conservative Republican legislative leaders who helped push it through were dumped by even more conservative Republicans.)

I remember talking with Jenny Oropeza when she chaired the Assembly Budget Committee. She insisted there didn't need to be budget cuts because Republicans would vote for a tax increase. Why would they do that, I asked? Well, they just would, she insisted. They would have to in order to show they were responsible, she argued.

That was nine years ago.

Brown seems to be making some progress again on getting the handful of Republican votes necessary for the needed two-thirds vote for the tax extensions that are an integral part of his grand budget compromise.

And he is pushing back against Democratic moves to roll back some of the recently enacted budget cuts.

In all this he has help from two major emerging factors.

By June 10th we may have at least preliminary maps of the state's new legislative and congressional districts, as the citizens redistricting commission created by Schwarzenegger's 2008 initiative does its work. The prospect of these non-gerrymandered districts could make several legislators much more reasonable.

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

And state Controller John Chiang will refuse to pay any legislative salaries, per diems, or other expenses starting June 16th until the budget is passed, citing the authority of last November's Prop 25. In so doing, he brushes aside an opinion from the tame Legislative Counsel's office to the contrary.

Brown also got some fairly good news Wednesday in the form of the latest Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll.

The governor has a 46% job approval rating with likely voters (42% with all Californians), with 28% disapproving, and a whopping 26% unsure. The decidedly underexposed Brown won his landslide election last November over billionaire Meg Whitman with 54% of the vote.

By way of comparison, Schwarzenegger's last job approval rating in the December PPIC poll release was 32%, a decided improvement over where he was last summer.

The new PPIC poll shows what others polls have shown. Voters back Brown's overall approach of budget cuts and tax extensions, as well as his call for a vote on the matter. Which Republicans have blocked for months.

But they don't especially like the individual taxes in question, when the question is posed that way.

And while they say they want big budget cuts, much of which they've already gotten from Brown, they don't want to cut where the money mostly goes.

Big majorities oppose cuts to K-12 education, higher education, and health and human services. And a big majority favors cuts to corrections and prisons.

It's the typical seeming contradiction in attitudes, with a strong overlay of basic ignorance. Welcome to American democracy in the 21st century.

What the voters really want is for this thing to get done.

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