Capitol Alert Breaking

California, Jerry Brown enjoying rave reviews, but comparisons are tricky

Praise for California and its governor, Jerry Brown, has drifted in for months now from the East Coast, ever since Brown and state lawmakers enacted a balanced budget this summer.

The accomplishment followed years of deficits and budget standoffs at the Capitol. Coupled with the Legislature’s relatively frictionless action on issues ranging from education funding to gun control and immigration, the statehouse found itself comparing favorably to dysfunction in Washington, D.C.

“If you just take a look at what’s happening in California,” Neera Tanden, president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said at a conference Thursday in the nation’s capital, “you can see that progressive governance can work and is responding to the challenges of our time.”

Brown, the lunchtime speaker at the event, argued one reason for this success is that, through a series of ballot measures, Californians “broke a decade of dysfunction and laid the foundation for a government that actually works.”

He credited initiatives to raise taxes, put redistricting in the hands of a citizens commission, lengthen term limits for lawmakers, change the primary election system and reduce from two-thirds to a simple majority the threshold required of the Legislature to pass a budget.

“These five changes in governance,” Brown said, “have opened up incredible possibilities that have now been seized in California.”

What neither Brown nor advocates of those initiatives dwell on when holding up California as a beacon of good government, however, is one feature of this state that makes modeling especially hard: Unlike in Washington or other, less liberal reaches of the country, California Democrats not only occupy every statewide office, but also hold large majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

“Let’s say you gave Barack Obama a two-thirds Democratic Congress, meaning not only could he pass anything he wanted, but the Republicans are completely irrelevant,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. “Then he’d have a pretty good year, too.”

Comparisons of California and Washington have become timely in part because of the federal government’s recent shutdown – “California sees gridlock ease in governing,” read a headline in The New York Times – and in part because it has been 10 years since the recall election in which Arnold Schwarzenegger came to office. The anniversary has afforded observers an opportunity to evaluate the significance of electoral changes Schwarzenegger pushed.

“There’s no question that things run much more smoothly, for better or worse, under one-party rule, but the changes in the elections process are going to have a much greater long-term impact,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “There’s not an on-off switch that magically fixes government, but redistricting reform and the top-two primary have changed the incentive system for legislators who are looking for opportunities to work across party lines.”

Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former Republican legislative aide, said that for lawmakers looking ahead to re-election campaigns in competitive districts, “It’s no longer good enough just to pander to your tiny little base.”

Yet so far, the significance of the top-two primary is inconclusive in its goal of moderating politicians’ ideological extremes. In a study completed earlier this year, Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, and other researchers found candidates running for legislative office in the top-two primary system in 2012 were no more moderate in their positions than in 2010, before the process was initiated.

The signature pieces of legislation enacted by Brown and state lawmakers this year included a package of gun control bills, raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016 and granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. These were not, by and large, bipartisan affairs. Nor was the November passage of Proposition 30, the tax measure that was passed over Republican lawmakers’ objections and whose revenue made balancing the state budget far easier for Democratic lawmakers and Brown.

“The Republicans in the minority no longer stand in the way of what Democrats want to do,” Kousser said. “That’s why there’s less friction, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t get run over.”

Tellingly, in states in which Republican governors enjoy Republican majorities in the legislature, rhetoric about the effectiveness of government is similar to Brown’s.

“I think Michigan’s a great model to show how it can be done successfully,” Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said at a news conference this month. “We had a billion-and-a-half dollar deficit. We had two or three years prior to taking office where we had government shutdowns. So we had a mess. We came in, did tax reform, balanced the budget, have done that several years successfully, we’re paying down our debt.”

Brown has said this year that California could be a model for Washington not just on governance issues, but in any number of policy areas, including immigration and the environment. State policies addressing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming have been replicated by the federal government and other states for years.

“It just so happens that things are happening in California that are not happening in Washington,” Brown told reporters after an event in San Francisco last month. “It just has dawned on me that we can do a lot of things in California to shift the climate throughout the whole country.”

He compared California to a lever and quoted a Greek mathematician: “Archimedes said, if you give me a place to stand ... I can move the earth.”