Governor is heavy-handed but shows he hates to lose

Gov. Jerry Brown plans to attend today’s University of California Board of Regents meeting that will consider a tuition increase that the governor opposes.
Gov. Jerry Brown plans to attend today’s University of California Board of Regents meeting that will consider a tuition increase that the governor opposes. Associated Press file

A governor can offer few plums sweeter than an appointment to the UC Board of Regents, the steward of the nation’s premier public university system.

That’s why many governors appoint dear friends, close allies and significant contributors to the coveted but unpaid position. Occasionally, governors seek to drive home points with their appointments, as Gov. Jerry Brown did on Monday.

Brown appointed Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the innovative superintendent and president of Long Beach City College, and former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, who must leave the Assembly because of term limits and lost his run for state controller this year.

Brown made the announcement ahead of the regents’ meetings in San Francisco Wednesday and Thursday to consider UC President Janet Napolitano’s proposal to raise tuition by as much 5 percent annually for five years, or less depending on the level of state funding.

The appointments might seem heavy-handed, and they are. But no governor likes to lose. Brown, who intends to attend the regents’ meeting today, clearly is counting votes. Both appointees likely will side with Brown by opposing Napolitano’s plan.

Pérez, who attended UC Berkeley, is a shrewd politician who is not above being heavy-handed. The governor could rely on Pérez to reinforce his positions.

Oakley likely will advocate that UC be more inviting to community college students, an issue Brown repeatedly has raised. UC ought to be accepting of transfer students who complete their basic requirements at the far less expensive community colleges.

With the latest appointments, Brown has named six people to the board, including three who he reappointed. If all his appointees side with Brown, he could count six votes.

Other allies on the issue likely will include ex-officio board members, among them Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins.

Not counting any absences, that would add up to 10 votes, including Brown. The student regent also likely would oppose the tuition hike. But there are 26 regents. So the governor could fall short.

None of this bodes well for what should happen: a compromise that would be in the interest of students, parents and the state that has benefited mightily from having a great research and teaching public university system.

Napolitano could muster the votes for her position. It’s never a good idea to tangle with governors; governors usually win. Napolitano is aware of this, having been governor of Arizona.

Even if regents defy Brown by approving a tuition hike, the governor will have the last word. Brown’s aides are writing the new state budget now. That will include an increase in UC funding, or not.

The governor also could delete any funding increase inserted into the budget by legislators, as he showed earlier this year when he vetoed a $100 million boost for the UC and California State University systems.

Napolitano and Brown should end the brinkmanship. The governor is right. UC needs to curb administrative costs, scale back high salaries, and help students graduate in four years. Napolitano is right. The state needs to recommit itself to its public universities, and parents ought to be able to know the cost of a four-year degree. This fight serves no one.

Even if he loses this round, Brown has another vacancy to fill on the Board of Regents, and plenty of friends hoping he picks them.