Governor Moonbeam: California’s Responsible Adult

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Ken James / Bloomberg via Getty Images

SACRAMENTO—Forget the former California governor who’s once again a tabloid sensation. Let’s talk about the former California governor who’s once again a California governor. Jerry Brown, the Golden State’s 34th and 39th chief executive, is now trying to clean up Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mess–not the love-child mess, but the budget-deficit mess. The quirky Governor Moonbeam who was first elected 37 years ago, has become Governor Laser Beam in his second go-around, focusing monomaniacally on the budget, the hole he inherited in the budget, and nothing but the budget.

At 72, Brown has positioned himself as the responsible adult in Sacramento. He’s already pushed $11 billion in spending cuts through a reluctant Democratic-controlled legislature, and he announced this week that better-than-expected revenues had reduced California’s deficit below $10 billion. The problem, as always in California, is the tax side. He needs a two-thirds vote in both houses of the state  legislature just to put his proposed tax increase of $10 billion a year on the ballot. And that means he needs at least four Republican votes.

So far, he’s about, oh, four Republican votes short. He’s talking to legislators every day, but he’s starting to warn about massive cuts to public education and public safety if a deal doesn’t happen.

“There’s a gap,” Brown says. “You can’t close it with hocus-pocus or Republican rhetoric.”

I have written that the perennial media meme about the death of a California dream is absolutely wrong. (I may be biased by living in a truly failing state.) And I still think that Schwarzenegger, whatever his zipper-related shortcomings, did some very good things as governor. But the California budget mess is no myth. It’s not all Schwarzenegger’s fault, but he did get elected by promising to fix it, and he never did. It’s arguable how hard he even tried.

Everyone in Sacramento agrees that Brown is trying. But California’s mess is in some ways even bleaker than the budget situation in Washington, because of the two-thirds rule for taxes—and for passing a budget—as well as the legacy of ballot initiatives that have locked in spending on all kinds of programs that somebody’s lobbyist once wanted.

Brown is trying to cut all kinds of fat—eliminating half the state government’s cell phones and vehicles, freezing public employee travel, eliminating redevelopment authorities, merging personnel departments—but Republicans have drawn their usual line in the sand on taxes, refusing so far to even allow a vote on extending expiring tax hikes that Schwarzenegger enacted. Then again, the consequences of failure are a bit less drastic in Sacramento; if Brown can’t work out a deal by mid-June, the state will issue IOUs. If President Obama and the similarly intransigent Republicans in Congress don’t agree to lift the debt limit by August, the world might abandon the dollar, and the global economy might collapse.

In any case, it’s pretty amazing to see Brown back in the saddle, after his three presidential bids, his improbable comeback as mayor of Oakland and his stint as attorney general. He’s Sacramento’s Rip Van Winkle. I got to watch him Thursday at the state’s 50th annual Legislative Prayer Breakfast, which, he pointed out, was started by his father Pat, California’s 32nd governor.

The breakfast was one of those awkward bipartisan events where everyone agrees not to discuss partisan warfare until the final Amen, after which everyone puts down their napkins and returns to the regularly scheduled hostilities. One state senator offered a Prayer of Reconciliation, but it was more about repenting for sins than setting aside differences. (Actually, it was David’s prayer after his indiscretion with Bathsheba, back before indiscretions ended up on TMZ.)  The highlight of the breakfast was Brown, who spoke for maybe three minutes, looked vaguely irritated the whole time, and said some absurdly interesting things about the Book of Matthew,  the importance of detachment from the “ego of self,” and the proper distance between the hurly-burly of politics and the intimacy of spirituality. He closed with a lovely suggestion that everyone should try to remember the most forgotten soul in Purgatory—though he quipped with an almost-smile that even Catholics don’t believe much in Purgatory anymore–and help the most forgotten soul in California.

You’ll have to trust me.  I knew the dude had spent some time in a Jesuit seminary. I knew he had some kind of Zen vibe going.  But he’s weirdly mesmerizing.

Of course, all the prayers and vibes in the world won’t get him a budget without four Republicans. After the event, when I asked Brown what had changed since his first term, he said, well, the event used to be called the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. Hadn’t anything else changed in Sacramento since the days of bell bottoms and disco, when Brown had hair, dated Linda Ronstadt and acted kind of groovy?

“What’s new is a lot of the same stuff,” he grumbled. “Republicans and Democrats fighting. I don’t have a lot of deep thoughts right now. Ask me in a month.”