California: Where It's Not Good Being the Governor

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Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

California Governor Jerry Brown speaks in Los Angeles on June 16, 2011, after vetoing the budget passed the previous day by state legislators

It's starting to look like this mission is too tough for anyone. Like his predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor Jerry Brown of California was elected on a pledge to erase the enormous deficit. Brown is trying hard. He's more hands-on with lawmakers than the "Governator" was, and he's determined to find a permanent rather than a temporary solution. He needs Republican votes to extend higher taxes, but they won't budge. So his hands are tied, just as Schwarzenegger's were. But he's not going down without a fight. And on Thursday, Brown's own Democrats passed a budget so unpalatable that he vetoed it.

The governor had brought a good measure of experience to the job. He was elected to his third term as governor last year, having served two previous terms from 1978 to '83. "Brown seems to be much more engaged and using personal levers more effectively, but that's not enough," says Gary Gray, a political-science professor who studies California politics at the University of San Diego. "It's this fundamental gridlock built in as part of the rules."

Democratic lawmakers, who hold majorities in the Senate and Assembly, approved a budget plan before their deadline on Wednesday, the first on-time budget in years. The plan, however, called for financial Band-Aids that have been favored in past years — such as putting off debt payments to schools and selling state buildings. These do not solve budget crises. "Unfortunately, the budget I have received is not a balanced solution," Brown said in a statement yesterday. "It continues big deficits for years to come and adds billions of dollars of new debt. It also contains legally questionable maneuvers, costly borrowing and unrealistic savings."

Brown is the latest governor to wrestle with the political gridlock that has long plagued state budgets largely because of Proposition 13, which requires a two-thirds majority vote for any revenue increases. In March, Brown and the Democrats eased the $26 billion deficit by passing $11 billion in spending cuts, after a reform adopted last year allowed lawmakers to approve spending legislation with a simple majority rather than two-thirds.

The governor planned to plug the remaining hole by extending expiring income, sales and vehicle-registration taxes to prevent more cuts to public safety and schools. But California remains one of the most stringent in the country for passing budgets, still requiring a two-thirds vote to pass legislation affecting taxes or to put tax legislation on a ballot for voters to approve directly. Brown needs four Republican votes to make that happen, and he hasn't been able to get them. That, Gray says, puts him in a league with Schwarzenegger, unable to rely on cooperation from lawmakers to balance the budget.

Brown miscalculated by assuming Republicans would favor allowing voters to decide on the tax extensions, says Chris Elmendorf, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis. He may have underestimated how much more polarized the legislature is today than it was during his first term as governor, Elmendorf explains.

Despite that mistake, Brown has done a better job than Schwarzenegger did, Elmendorf says. He is genuinely interested in fixing the budget problem rather than simply postponing it, and Thursday's veto is evidence of that. He has also made more effort than his predecessor to negotiate with lawmakers. "The budget itself he proposed is the most serious budget anyone has proposed in years," Elmendorf says. "It actually doesn't rely on gimmicks, and his veto of the budget the Democrats put forth is his way of saying, 'Hey, I'm serious about this.'"

Unless he can find a solution though, Californians may see him as just another governor who failed to rein in the state's finances. If Republicans don't give in on the tax issue, one of Brown's only remaining options might be an even more bitter pill for the public to swallow: passing more cuts to already reeling areas like education.

As Gray puts it, "Personally, I would hate to be the governor."