Bill Whalen

Brown, Legislature on collision course on spending

Gov. Jerry Brown uses charts to illustrate his revised budget plan, noting that an economic downturn is coming, during a press conference at the state Capitol on May 11.
Gov. Jerry Brown uses charts to illustrate his revised budget plan, noting that an economic downturn is coming, during a press conference at the state Capitol on May 11. Sacramento Bee file

Two political figures could be on the hot seat in California in 2018.

One’s a no-brainer: Donald Trump, the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to bypass the Golden State in his first year. Not that there’s California Love awaiting Trump if and when he does visit. From the serious (environmental safeguards) to the symbolic (sanctuary state status) and sophomoric (demanding presidential candidates’ tax returns appear on the state ballot), California lawmakers never got tired of finding new ways to get under the president’s faux-tanned hide last year. Look for more of the same in 2018 – for that matter, as long as Trump holds office.


The other might be a surprise: Gov. Jerry Brown.

Last year, Brown used Trump as a point of commonality with state lawmakers. He invoked Woody Guthrie’s lyrics in the closing passage of his State of the State address: “Nobody living can ever make me turn back / This land was made for you and me.”

But what if Brown invokes a different Woody in his final address before the Legislature – Woody Allen: “The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.”

Brown, the most experienced governor to hold the job, is Sacramento’s lion. The calf: A term-limited Legislature under new leadership and probably incapable of overriding gubernatorial vetoes and blue-pencil budget cuts.

A collision course over spending seems inevitable. Although the state budget has ballooned on Brown’s watch (from $85.9 billion in the general fund in 2011 to $125 billion last year), Brown would have Californians believe he’s a fiscal cheapskate. It’s a safe bet that his final State of the State will offer some variation of his warnings about future spending cuts when he proposed his revised budget in May.

But budget cuts won’t be the order of business in 2018, not with a projected $7.5 billion surplus. Look for Brown to push for something Solomonic – spend half of the surplus, put the other half in reserve. And that won’t please the spend-it-now Legislature.

Should relations sour, Brown has a big weapon – his veto pen.

However, Brown’s veto record is complicated. While his 1,422 vetoes place him fourth behind George Deukmejian (2,298) Arnold Schwarzenegger (1,970) and Pete Wilson (1,890) on the all-time California list, Brown has also signed 16,793 bills during his 15 years as governor.

By contrast, his father Pat Brown issued only 512 vetoes during his eight years in office and signed about 7,500 bills. Gray Davis – the only other Democrat not named Brown to hold the job in the past 75 years – vetoed 1,098 bills and signed 5,144 over five years.

If the new year is like the most recent, Brown will veto about one-eighth of the bills that reach his desk, though the gubernatorial election might alter that. In 1982, the lame-duck year of his previous stint as governor, Brown vetoed only 30 of 1,644 bills.

But in 2018, emboldened lawmakers, perhaps calculating that even a veto can be spun into good news back home, may send more bills to Brown rather than negotiate with the governor in private. That just might suit Brown, as it’ll embellish his reputation as the Capitol’s sheriff.

Either way, it makes for interesting watching this summer and fall – especially if Trump continues to veto travel to California.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at