10/20/2011 05:14 pm ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011

Signs: Jerry Brown After a Disappointing Legislative Year

After a rather disappointing legislative year, Governor Jerry Brown is looking ahead to 2012. Brown and his appointees are digging into future economic and energy policy, the prospects for major water and high-speed rail projects, the possibility of mid-course cuts in the current state budget, and the 2012 elections.

The central disappointment, of course, is that Brown got only half his grand compromise to solve California's chronic state budget crisis. He got big cuts through early on, but couldn't get four Republican legislators to go along with even allowing the public to vote on tax extensions. From then on, Brown dealt with a dysfunctional legislature, which did little on the state's slow-to-recover economy, focusing in many instances on far less relevant bills.

How close, incidentally, did Brown get to having the needed four Republican legislative votes to meet the state's unusual two-thirds vote requirement on raising or extending a tax? (It only takes a majority to cut a tax.) That's hard to say. When he finally pulled the plug on negotiations at the end of June, Brown said in a webcast press conference it had come down to one rural legislator who backed away. And former Democratic legislator and consultant Rusty Areias, who was helping develop rural support for Brown's program, thinks they were that close.

Others think not, that even the handful of Republican with whom Brown was negotiating were never going to risk the wrath of the party's anti-tax Taliban.

When Brown finished going through hundreds of bills on other matters earlier this month, his decisions caused a degree of consternation, feigned or otherwise, among observers used to knee-jerk orthodoxies of left and right. Brown was said to be inscrutable. Which was strictly non-serious.

Two days later, Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton -- who not only covered Brown during his first go-round as governor but also covered his dad -- chimed in, saying: "Jerry Brown is not a mystery. He's a moderate."

Well, in a way. But not really. Brown is more a pragmatic iconoclast who wants California as much on the edge of futuristic change as possible. He wants a healthy public sector but not an ever-expanding public sector. He wants strong labor protections without labor running the show. He wants a dynamic and innovative entrepreneurial sector while reining in capitalism's excesses. He wants strong environmental protections -- and especially a new energy economy based on renewables and efficiency -- without choking off business. He's a hopeful skeptic.

Not that he's doing much to provide a narrative for what he's about. Brown decided to communicate principally through bill signing and veto messages. But that left many confused, as his actions didn't fit into present day cookie cutter molds.

I had hoped Brown would lay things out in a comprehensive way late last week when he joined Michael Milken for a one-on-one conversation at the Milken Institute's annual State of the State conference at the Beverly Hilton. But he mostly rambled instead, entertainingly as usual.

Brown is his own chief strategist, communications director, chief of staff, chief spokesman, even media consultant. He was thrilled last year to discover how readily advertising options can be manipulated on a Mac. Clearly, he has his own ideas on how to do things.

Brown has strong elements for an overall message, but it still needs to be woven into a coherent narrative. These days he prefers to deliver strong riffs, like a jazz musician.

But Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain, a 1960 jazz classic of Brown's college days, fascinating as it is, has never been nearly as popular as any of his old girlfriend Linda Ronstadt's hit pop songs. For all its interweaving wonders, jazz is simply not as accessible as a short and well-crafted song.

Brown vetoed a bill to require that budget cuts triggered if revenue projections fall short -- as they are doing now -- be revisited late this year. This bill, Brown wrote, "would have undermined investor confidence in California by altering the budget's mechanisms for automatic trigger cuts. The trigger mechanisms were adopted when I signed the budget and were essential to improving our credit standing. Indeed, our no-gimmick, on-time budget was the reason S&P assigned its highest rating to the short-term notes sold this past week -- the first time that's happened since 2007."

The bill would have required state Finance Director Ana Matosantos to confer with legislative leaders on alternatives to triggered cuts already specified in the state budget, thus introducing an element of uncertainty as to whether any such cuts would take place as promised.

In other big ticket action, Brown signed state Assemblyman Gil Cedillo's California Dream Act, which allows for financial assistance for top illegal immigrant students attending California universities.

And he vetoed legislation to restore affirmative action based on race and gender in admissions to the University of California and California State University systems. Brown said in his veto message that, while he agrees with affirmative action personally, it is up to the courts to decide whether the long established Proposition 209 initiative restrictions on affirmative action should be allowed to stand.

In his statement about his signing of the California Dream Act, Brown noted: "Going to college is a dream that promises intellectual excitement and creative thinking. The Dream Act benefits us all by giving top students a chance to improve their lives and the lives of all of us."

Under already existing law, illegal immigrant students pay state resident tuition rates to attend state universities if they affirm that they are applying to legalize their immigration status. The new AB 131 will make this group of students eligible to apply for Cal Grants and other forms of state aid.

The California Department of Finance estimates that 2,500 students will qualify for Cal Grants as a result of AB 131, at a cost of $14.5 million. That is only 1% of the program.

Brown also signed legislation moving statewide initiatives and referenda to the November ballot, a big win for labor, vetoed legislation unionizing baby sitters and vetoed new restrictions on megastores like Walmart (two big losses for labor), extended tax credits for Hollywood productions, allowed minors to get vaccinations for HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases without parental consent, stopped the money-making practice of local government impounding of unlicensed drivers' cars, and made it illegal to openly carry a handgun in public.

The initiative move was the biggest, and caused howls from Republicans who want a smaller June electorate to decide on their pet projects. There's a good government case to having initiatives on both the June and November election ballots, as there are frequently too many to judge at one sitting. But Brown tried to work for months with Republicans, and didn't get very far. And in politics, when people won't work with you, you simply have to beat them.

Looking ahead, Brown is working on putting together an approach to the November 2012 elections, when President Barack Obama is on the ballot and Democratic turnout will likely be high. His friend, veteran Sacramento consultant David Townsend, points out that California voters aren't at all enamored of most of the tax-raising options out there. The polls bear that out.

But there are options on high-income individuals and companies, and on oil companies, that might fly, and some are looking into those.

Brown also intends to keep the ball moving forward on renewable energy, as did his predecessor, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Who, after a rough first half of the year consumed by personal controversies, is now working on his second post-governorship movie in New Mexico, hosted a sold-out Arnold Classic Europe sports festival in Madrid and opened the Schwarzenegger Museum in Austria -- all this month -- and gave a speech on energy last month at the United Nations.)

Brown gained new powers this year to designate renewable energy projects top priorities that can skip through several layers of regulatory delay. Now he needs to choose wisely. Brown had no involvement that I'm aware of with the ill-fated Solyndra project.

And as renewable energy advocate John White points out, the failure to pass legislation to extend the public goods charge on utilities that funds $400 million per year for renewables can be at least partially dealt with through the Public Utilities Commission.

High-speed rail is something that Brown has always favored. But its path forward seems unclear. So Brown has his new appointees to the high-speed rail board, his highly regarded new senior jobs advisor Mike Rossi and former top transit executive Dan Richards, digging in hard on the high-speed rail business plan.

Brown is also somewhat immersed, so to speak, in water policy, one of the most historically divisive issues in the state, on regional and ideological grounds. Schwarzenegger finally wrestled an $11 billion water bond set of projects through the legislature, but it needs passage in initiative form. And in this environment, that means it needs careful pruning.

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