Brown Looks to Spend Political Capital on Fixing California’s Budget Mess

BY Spencer Michels  February 1, 2011 at 2:11 PM EDT

Jerry Brown — California’s new Democratic governor — is getting away with something that most politicians these days can only dream about. He has plunged into California’s huge budgetary mess — the state is short $25.4 billion — proposing extensions of some tax increases and further slashing the budget. And he has lived — even prospered — to tell the tale.

A new independent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that two-thirds of Californians say a special election on Brown’s proposals is a good idea. Democrats are more supportive than Republicans, but even 49 percent of Republicans are satisfied. Those results would have been unthinkable prior to now; Californians turned down tax extensions and major reforms several times in the recent past.

The cuts proposed so far will be deep and hurtful, especially to California’s poor, who will see declines in Medicaid and welfare. And the tax extensions will hit income and sales taxes. Nobody likes any of that.

But Brown promised early on that California would have to take its medicine, and he has not backed down. This is strong medicine.

Last week on the NewsHour, David Brooks, reflecting on the economy and President Obama’s State of the Union message, said “the country doesn’t want to take the tough measures.” Brooks noted that the president has not said: “Here’s the tough measures. I’m going to call for some sacrifice on all of you.” And Mark Shields agreed: “We haven’t had a leader call for sacrifice.”

While dealing with only one large state, Brown has called for sacrifice, and surprisingly the people plus some of the politicians and the special interest groups have seen the handwriting on the wall and gone along. Brown proposed taking some money away from mental health programs funded by a special tax on incomes over $1 million. You would have expected howls of protest from the well-organized mental health community, but the objections have been muted and conciliatory.

Redevelopment agencies in cities throughout the state yelped in pain after the governor proposed shutting them down and using the money for other state services. But now there’s talk of a compromise. The same is true for several other endangered state programs.

Symbolically, Brown has tried to show how serious he is about cutting the budget by taking away state-funded cell phones from 48,000 state workers, and ordering that non-essential state vehicles, many driven home at night by state workers, be sold within 120 days. On a personal level, he’s cut the governor’s office staff, taken a loft/apartment near the Capitol, and erected a picnic table in his conference room – a stark contrast to his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brown has been seen eating burritos in the halls of the Capitol; Schwarzenegger never did that.

For now, the governor is riding a wave of popular support, an acknowledgment that the financial picture is dismal and something major needs to be done. He is using his political capital early with both Democrats and Republicans, and he is hoping the sacrifices he is proposing may be only temporary. The state’s economy is large and could rebound, he said. “We have to have some optimism, too,” he told reporters, predicting new jobs, more water and school reform, eventually. But, he warned. “If we don’t get this budget fixed, California will flounder…” And the public seems to agree.

For more of Brown’s State of the State address, check out special coverage by KQED’s California Report.