Dan Morain

Editorial page editor, political affairs columnist and editorial writer

Dan Morain: Politicians, at least the better ones, look to leave their marks at the ends of their tenure

05/18/2014 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 9:05 PM

Darrell Steinberg, termed out and facing his political mortality, has no interest in ending his 14 years as a legislator by cleaning up the mess left by the crooks and liars who sullied his house.

He’d much rather conclude with a flourish by securing $500 million-plus to expand preschool for as many as 250,000 4-year-old kids.

“Our budget is going to include a significant advance for early childhood education. That I can tell you,” the Senate leader vowed.

Jerry Brown has his own priorities for the roughly $156 billion that California will spend in the fiscal year beginning July 1, and they don’t necessarily mesh with the interests of lame duck legislators, even Democratic allies such as Steinberg.

“Restoring our fiscal excess is not a platform I want to run on,” Brown said last week when he visited The Bee’s editorial board seeking an endorsement for a fourth and final term as governor.

A shoo-in for re-election, the governor will preside over five more budgets, barring the unforeseen. But 45 years after his career in elected office began, Brown is much closer to the end than to the beginning.

Politicians, at least the better ones, look to leave their marks at the ends of their tenure. For Steinberg, that means more money for the poor. For Brown, that means more money for public works.

His reputation for frugality aside, the governor is perfectly willing to spend money, lots of it. But he prefers to use it for projects, which, if they get built, will outlive us all. To that end, he presses ahead with the much-delayed high-speed rail project, with its $68 billion price tag.

“It gives us an opportunity to demonstrate how and why we are the eighth largest economy in the world,” Brown said.

Brown became animated as he explained that to complete the leg from Bakersfield to Palmdale, workers would need to tunnel 30 miles through rock, and many more miles to link Palmdale to Los Angeles.

“This is bold,” he said. “We can do it here. We have the capacity to finance it. … To me, it is very important: Can we bring the future forward and manage it?”

Then there is the Delta bypass, his $25 billion concept that includes 35-mile-long twin tunnels to funnel Sacramento River water to much of the rest of the state. He is leaning toward a water bond measure for the November ballot, one that presumably would include billions for new reservoirs.

“I feel a certain connection to the land of California, and I want to see it preserved. But we can’t preserve it through nostalgia,” Brown said. “We’ve got to build. That’s high-speed rail. That’s the tunnels. That’s alternative energy. That is (water) storage.”

Steinberg rarely whacks other pols. But after holding his tongue on Tuesday when Brown released his revised budget, Steinberg convened a press conference Wednesday and flung a curse word in the governor’s direction, almost.

He paused ever so briefly, thought better of uttering the nasty, and used the initials for what bulls emit from their south ends to describe the governor’s shtick.

“They’re going to save humanity from the wild spenders,” the senator told me later, as if quoting the governor and his aides. “It is such as an old story. It plays easy. It’s not true. … This notion that we just want to spend whatever we have – he doesn’t say it that way. It plays well.”

By any measure, Steinberg has had a good run, one of the best of any legislator elected during the era of term limits. His biggest win came in 2004 when voters approved a $1 billion-a-year tax hike on wealthy Californians to fund mental health care. There have been many others, most of them having to do with helping people who need it.

He has avoided ethical lapses but presides over a Senate in which two members have been indicted on federal corruption charges and a third has been convicted of perjury. That’s hardly the way he wants to go out. Far better to secure $500 million to pay for preschool for the babies of poor people.

Steinberg lists other pieces missing from Brown’s budget: more money for colleges, for doctors who provide care to Medi-Cal patients, for the court system and for people who provide care for shut-ins.

“It’s a budget that doesn’t have much inspiration, much feel. It doesn’t have much aspiration,” Steinberg said.

Brown responds by providing a little budget history: There have been deficits in 11 of the past 15 years.

“It’s not as if there aren’t a lot of good things to fund. There are. But we’ve got to play the hand we’re dealt,” the governor said.

So the final budget dance begins. Steinberg and Brown know better than most that it won’t go on for much longer. Good pols that they are, each will give up something to get something in return, as they seek victories they hope will last long after they’ve gone.

About This Blog

Dan Morain has been a columnist at The Bee since 2010 focusing on state government and politics. He previously worked for The Los Angeles Times covering the California Supreme Court when Rose Bird was chief justice, the Legislature when Willie Brown was speaker and the governor's office during Gray Davis' tenure. Dan Morain can be reached at dmorain@sacbee.com or 916-321-1907. Twitter: @DanielMorain.

 

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