With one swoop of his veto pen, Gov. Jerry Brown placed himself at odds with both parties in the Legislature by rejecting a Democratic budget he called unbalanced and "legally questionable."
The Democratic governor's budget veto on Thursday, believed to be the first in state history, leaves the spending plan in limbo as Brown resumes his search for Republican tax votes.
Brown's rejection was not entirely surprising, given his pledge against papering over the state deficit with the types of accounting maneuvers and tax swaps in the Democratic plan. But the speed about 16 hours after passage seemed to catch Democratic leaders off-guard.
"For the first time in history, the state budget has been vetoed," Brown said at a news conference at his Los Angeles office. "That's big, and it sends a powerful message that all of us have to do more, we have to rise to a difficult but higher level. And I am confident we're going to get a better budget. Whether I can get the Republicans to vote, that remains to be seen. But I'm certainly going to give them a chance."
Lawmakers made their own history Wednesday by passing the first majority-vote budget since 1933 and only the second on-time plan in a quarter-century, thanks to a 2010 voter-approved law reducing the two-thirds threshold. They did so under threat of pay forfeiture, a matter that remained unresolved Thursday as Democratic Controller John Chiang said he needed more time to decide if lawmakers fulfilled their duty under Proposition 25.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez said they were "deeply dismayed" by Brown's veto. For the first time, they openly questioned Brown's strategy and blamed him for failing to secure enough Republican votes for his own budget.
They rebuked GOP members for not agreeing to a bipartisan deal on taxes. But they also said Brown's refusal to consider any budget other than the two-party framework he proposed in January has left the state in an untenable position.
"The governor's constant references to his January proposal ring hollow if he is unable to deliver Republican votes," said Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat.
Before the governor's Thursday veto, the two legislative leaders said they believed Brown would continue negotiating with Republicans during a 12-day period in which he could sign or veto the budget bills.
"Let's be clear; the action today was completely unnecessary," said Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat.
Rank-and-file Democratic legislators vented their frustrations at Brown like never before. Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, said on Twitter, "No excuse for a Democratic Governor to blindside a Democratic legislature that was working with him and his staff." Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata, said in a statement that if the veto leads to further cuts to education and public safety, "the governor will join the Republicans in bearing the responsibility for this tragedy."
Brown's plan remains the same: seek two Republican votes in each house to place taxes on a fall ballot, as well as provide a funding "bridge" that temporarily extends sales and vehicle taxes until the election. Republicans are asking for pension reductions, a spending cap and regulatory rollbacks, but they are opposed to the tax bridge that Democrats consider crucial to winning a fall election.
"We need four Republican votes, and in the next several days I'm going to do everything I can," Brown said. "I'll move heaven and earth to get those votes."
Republicans praised Brown's swift veto. But they denied they had obstructed a budget agreement.
Four Republican negotiators Sens. Tom Berryhill of Oakdale, Anthony Cannella of Ceres, Bill Emmerson of Hemet and Tom Harman of Huntington Beach issued the following joint statement: "While the governor did the right thing by vetoing the Democrats' sham budget, we challenge his assertion that Republicans have blocked the right of the people to vote. In fact, it's the Democrats who are holding California hostage by refusing to allow the voters to weigh in on meaningful structural reforms not just Gov. Brown's tax proposal."
Democrats approved deep cuts in higher education and the state safety net in March, but they could not strike a tax deal with Republicans in time for a June election as Brown wanted. Between the cuts and an unexpected boost in state revenues, Democrats reduced the deficit from $26.6 billion to $9.6 billion.
To close the remaining gap, legislative Democrats cobbled together a package with cuts, taxes, fees, borrowing and selling state buildings. It revived maneuvers used in previous budgets that Brown campaigned against.
Democrats said they felt their budget was reasonable, albeit "imperfect." They said they refused to cut schools, corrections and health and welfare programs any further.
Brown, in his veto letter, warned of "deeper and more destructive cuts to schools and public safety" if Republicans block taxes.
But Steinberg and Pérez said they will not approve those cuts and would force Brown to use his line-item veto authority to achieve them.
By vetoing the budget package immediately, the governor reclaimed some control of the budget debate, observers said.
"It's a strong move on his part," Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said. "It keeps him in control of the agenda."
Brown is not an inflexible politician, but neither has he hesitated to use the veto. As governor from 1975 to 1983, Brown vetoed a 14.5 percent pay raise for state employees in 1979. He was overridden by the Legislature, something it has done only four times since 1946.
Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of California's Target Book, which handicaps legislative elections, said Brown may have no choice other than another confrontation with the Legislature.
"He can't give up, that's basically what it is," he said. "He promised to be something different ... . Signing that bill would have been giving up."