SCOTT SHAFER, HOST: In the 40-plus years Jerry Brown has been in California politics, he’s been called a lot of things—brilliant, wacky, unpredictable, loner. And this week, as he unveiled his revised state budget proposal, he described himself as something else -- “a backstop” against irrational exuberance.
GOV. JERRY BROWN: Everybody wants to see more spending. That’s what this place is. It’s a big spending machine. You need something? Come here and see if you can get it. Well, I’m the backstop at the end, and I’m going to keep this budget balanced as long as I’m around here.
SHAFER: So is this Jerry Brown 2.0, or vintage Brown going back to the future, reminding everyone that he’s no tax-and-spend liberal?
Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters has covered the Capitol and Jerry Brown for most of Brown’s quixotic career. He joins us now.
First of all Dan, let me put that very question to you: Is Brown’s characterization of himself this week as kind of restrained, prudent and so on. ... Is that the same Jerry Brown who was governor the first time?
DAN WALTERS: He really is kind of the same Jerry Brown. He’s always been a little cheap. There’s always been kind of a conflict -- an internal conflict if you will -- between Jerry the bleeding-heart liberal and Jerry the skinflint. I remember he used to say that teachers should be satisfied with psychic rewards rather than higher salaries, for example, years ago. He took away bureaucrats’ briefcases then. Now he takes away their cell phones.
SHAFER: And how did it go over the first time around? Was he someone who got along pretty well with Democrats that controlled the Legislature, and are we seeing that this time, or perhaps are there some storm clouds on the horizon where he may be disagreeing with some of the priorities he’s laying out?
WALTERS: Well, the big difference is that his parsimoniousness in those days -- Jerry Brown 1.0 -- was more symbolic and rhetorical than it was actual. He didn’t really care much about governing California in those days. He was running for something all the time. He ran for governor in '74. He ran for president in '76. He ran for re-election in '78. He ran for president again in '80. He ran for the U.S. Senate in '82. So, his first governorship was basically one extended political campaign. He really wasn’t very much interested in what happened in California. One year, in fact, he signed the budget without making a single line-item veto. He just really didn’t care that much. This time he’s really engaged in governing and therefore that cheapness actually has an effect. It’s not just rhetoric. It’s not just symbolic acts. He actually, kind of, more or less practices what he preaches. And I say “more or less” because he’s not really being as frugal or as budget-balancing-minded as he pretends to be in this particular case.
SHAFER: Meaning what?
WALTERS: Well, the budget is balanced on paper -- only if one ignores certain things. Yes, the budget would pay all of the bills that the state would have to pay during the forthcoming year, but it borrows more money. It borrows $500 million from the cap-and-trade fund. It basically borrows a bunch of money from counties by taking money from them and then saying, 'Figure out later how much you really owe us,' on some very complicated budgetary maneuvers. And it ignores some very serious matters that basically do nothing. It does nothing, for example, about the California teachers' pension fund’s request for $4.5 billion more a year it says it needs to remain solvent. It does nothing about the long-term and ever-growing unfunded liability for state employee retiree health care. So, it’s balanced, but if you were to take care of all of those things and you wouldn’t borrow the money that he’s borrowing and all that stuff, you really put all of that into the equation -- it’s about $10 billion out of whack.
SHAFER: Well, be that as it may, this is a relatively optimistic budget. The revenues are growing for the first time in a long time. And after all these years of cuts the Democrats have gone along with, can he stand up, will he stand up to what’s bound to be a demand for spending at least some more money than he wants to spend on social services and other things the Democrats care about?
WALTERS: The answer is ... I think he feels he has to for this reason: First of all, the spending that’s in that budget is largely dictated by constitutional guarantees for schools ... constitutionally guaranteed money. And for new money they’re giving the counties for realignment -- that’s now in the Constitution due to Proposition 30 that passed last year. So, he doesn’t have an awful lot of choice about those things. The only real choice in this thing might be on the revenue side, not on the spending side. Clearly, Jerry sent orders to his bean counters to be very, very conservative on the revenue side -- to not have any irrational exuberance on the revenue side and, if anything, come in on the low side. And, in a way, it’s kind of smart politics. It’s much easier to come back later a few months later and say, 'Guess what? We’ve got some more money than we thought we had,' rather than have to go back and say, 'Guess what? We overspent what we have and now we have to cut.'
SHAFER: All right. Dan Walters, columnist for the Sacramento Bee, thanks so much as always.
WALTERS: You’re welcome.