Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Brown steering a steady course

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Whatever piece of hide that his doctors had excised, Jerry Brown returned to work no worse for the wear.

Having completed his prostate cancer treatment, Brown proclaimed himself fit and is intent on sticking around for a while. He will be three-quarters of a century old in a few months, but was not lacking for energy or Brownisms during what by any measure was a remarkable week.

He opened the first full week of 2013 by declaring an end to the years-long crisis in California's notoriously overcrowded prisons, and ended it by declaring that the era of perennial budget deficits was over, at least until the next recession strikes.

Both claims are open to debate. But as political theater goes, Brown gets a thumbs up. He gave classic performances during, count them, two lengthy news conferences in Sacramento and one in Los Angeles.

He quoted Aristotle on equality, invoked the concept of Boulwarism, essentially a take-it-or-leave-it labor negotiating position, and provided opposition party critics little to attack.

Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway had a Chris Christie moment when she figuratively embraced the Democratic governor, calling him the "adult in the room" after he had unveiled what was a boringly balanced budget.

"Another ho-hum balanced budget in California," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said, tongue implanted in cheek.

This is no small achievement after the horrendous deficits of $14 billion in 2008, $41 billion in 2009, $25 billion in 2011, and $9 billion in 2012.

Democratic lawmakers and the many interest groups that survive on state tax money will demand a greater restoration of cuts beyond what Brown offers in his budget proposal for 2013-14, which totals $138 billion, including special funds. But the governor, who offers a 5 percent spending increase, promises to restricts excessive expectations.

"We have to live within the means we have," Brown said. "I want to avoid the boom and the bust, the borrow and the spend, where we make the promise and then we take it back."

He cited the examples of the exorbitant labor contracts signed by Gov. Gray Davis giving cops, firefighters and prison officers the right to retire at age 50 with as much as 90 percent of their pay, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cut the car tax by $6 billion without offering corresponding reductions to state services.

"We're not going to play the game of spending money we don't have and then, after I'm gone, somebody comes along and has to face what I did, a $27 billion or a $20 billion deficit," Brown said.

Like Schwarzenegger, Davis and every other governor, Brown has his priorities and, like the others, defines them by his spending proposals.

In his third budget of his third term, Brown made clear that he fully intends to place his stamp on the state. It will come at a price, paid by an implied promise that there will be sufficient money. Promises are easy to make.

Brown is embracing Obamacare by agreeing to expand Medi-Cal by a million Californians or more, a step that most Californians, myself included, support. The feds promise to pay for much of that expansion in the first years. Promises can be broken.

The governor is pressing ahead with high-speed rail; construction of the leg between Madera and Bakersfield is scheduled to begin later this year. Voters approved a $9 billion bond in 2008 for the ambitious program. That is a fraction of the overall cost, now placed at $68 billion, although no one should believe that is the final price tag.

The feds promise to pay for much of it. President Barack Obama likes the idea of a high-speed rail. But the Republican-controlled House, including California Republicans, is intent on blocking it, and the next president could find other uses for such money.

In one of his most far-reaching concepts, Brown seeks to give more money to poorer schools. Wealthier suburban districts would get the shorter end of that deal. But schools in rough places like Richmond and poor regions of the Central Valley need more than schools in Beverly Hills or Piedmont. It's an idea founded on concepts of fairness and equality. It's also a promise, and future governors could alter its terms.

Brown views himself as a progressive, and he is. He also said he is intent on making sure the state lives within its means. But his success depends on many promises, any one of which could be broken.

Certain facts were on his mind as he described his priorities last week. One is that the percentage of Californians who are at the high end of earning is 22 percent. It was 10 percent when he first was governor 30 years ago.

Another fact is that over the next five years, retirees in California between 65 and 74 will grow by 27 percent, while working-age Californians, ages 25 to 64, will grow by 3.6 percent, and preschoolers will grow by 6.2 percent.

"This is an aging society. It is serious," Brown said. "The inequality is growing. We have to do what we can to offset those global factors."

More immediately, Brown ran for governor in 2010 on a promise that he would restore a semblance of fiscal stability. For now, he kept that promise. To balance the budget, he needed the help of voters who approved a $6 billion tax increase, mostly on high earners.

Rich people will try to figure out how to avoid the higher taxes. Perhaps they will succeed, and revenue will fall. Maybe the next recession will come sooner than later, and revenue will plummet. But after the wild ride, Californians, jaded columnists included, ought appreciate a budget that lacks drama and contains a vision beyond cuts.