SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Jerry Brown, the enigmatic former governor who always seemed to be eyeing his next political post, returns to the state capital this week to lead a much different California than the one he oversaw 28 years ago.
The state’s finances are in a deep hole, term limits mean he will be dealing with a revolving door of lawmakers eyeing their next election, political polarization has all but paralyzed the Capitol, and the state’s population is larger and far more diverse than when he left the governor’s office in 1983.
After convincing Californians last November that they need an elder statesman to guide them through the state’s fiscal abyss, the 72-year-old veteran politician will have to overcome the hyper-partisanship that has overtaken political discourse in Sacramento.
The Democrat and outgoing state attorney general has promised an austere future as he prepares to become California’s 39th governor. The state faces a $28 billion budget shortfall through June 2012, and multibillion-dollar shortfalls are projected for the foreseeable future.
Brown is calling for “shared sacrifice” from all sides: Republicans, Democrats, unions and business leaders.
That could mean asking voters to extend the temporary income, sales and vehicle taxes that were approved in 2009 and are scheduled to expire in July, a politically risky ploy that would require voter approval just a year after voters rejected a similar request. Brown campaigned on a promise not to raise taxes without voter approval.
Grappling with the state’s staggering financial woes is likely to consume most of Brown’s attention his first year in office and require all the skills he has acquired during a lifetime in politics.
Just one week after Monday’s inauguration, the incoming governor must present his first budget plan. The surpluses and mostly on-time budgets he signed into law as governor from 1975 to 1983 are as much a part of history as the 1974 Plymouth Satellite he drove back then.
At two public forums last month, one on the state budget and the other on education, by far the largest expenditure in California’s budget, Brown laid out a grim scenario in which Californians should expect further funding cuts and reductions in service.
He also has said he wants to streamline departments and leave some positions unfilled, such as the largely redundant state secretary of education.
“I would say generally, that everything should be on the table and everyone should be at the table to talk about it,” Brown said during the first forum.
Republicans are wary of any plans that rely on extending the 2009 tax increases or raising others, but Brown has met with lawmakers from both parties during several visits to the Capitol since he defeated Republican Meg Whitman in November.
“I think he wants to make the process inclusive, not limit it to just a few legislators. He certainly recognizes the importance of the (legislative) leadership, but he recognizes that a good idea can come from anyone,” said former Gov. Gray Davis, who was Brown’s chief of staff during his previous tenure and was recalled by voters in the election that sent Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor’s office.
Brown’s inclination to meet with lawmakers and wade deep into policymaking also marks a sharp change in style from Schwarzenegger, who relied on charm and his larger-than-life personality to win deals as he met with the four legislative leaders behind closed doors. Brown also does not share the actor’s perpetually sunny disposition, but has a reputation as a tireless worker.
He says he is more realistic than Schwarzenegger was about the pace of change that is possible in state bureaucracy. Schwarzenegger infamously pledged to “blow up the boxes” of state government — a promise that was never fully executed — but Brown said he will instead try to focus on specific goals.
“You can’t blow up the boxes and you can’t take on everything. You can’t take on even too many things. And when people give a pretty good objection or suggestion, you’ve got to incorporate that,” he said during an interview with The Associated Press during the final weekend of the gubernatorial campaign.
When he was last in the governor’s office, Brown dated celebrities and earned the nickname “Governor Moonbeam” for what then seemed like far-out ideas, such as putting communications satellites into space.
He also was criticized for his continual pursuit of higher office that many said made him too distracted to lead effectively. He sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1976 and 1980, and lost his bid for U.S. Senate in 1982.
The former Jesuit seminarian also headed the state Democratic Party, practiced Zen Buddhism in Japan and worked with Mother Teresa in India. Brown tried again for the presidential nomination in 1992, then served eight years as mayor of Oakland.
Brown sought to portray his age and experience as an asset during last year’s campaign, saying he has the focus and dedication needed for the job. One major change since his last trip to the governor’s office: Brown is no longer a bachelor, marrying former Gap Inc. general counsel Anne Gust Brown, who is expected to play a prominent role in his office.
The intervening years also have taught him lessons in governance. As Oakland mayor, for example, he was forced to cope with many state regulations, some of which he approved as governor, and said the results were not always positive.
That experience, and the state’s growing inability to pay for a host of services Californians have come to expect, have led Brown to believe that many responsibilities and their costs should be shifted from the state to cities, counties and school districts.
He has said in hindsight he was wrong to have the state take on so many local government functions after voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, which cut local property tax revenue.
Given the state’s dire financial circumstances, Brown acknowledges there are few pleasant options and that ideological divides will not be overcome easily. He has joked that he’d like to force interest groups “out of their comfort zones,” possibly by keeping them in a room together until they can come up with a compromise.
“That may be a metaphor of the coalition-building that is required. Until you do it, you never can be quite sure what will be the result,” he said during the AP interview. “But I think people just yelling at each other doesn’t get very far … If you get people to focus on it very seriously, it’s possible to get agreements that weren’t obvious at the beginning of the process.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)