As California lawmakers rushed to wrap up their work before going into recess until January, Governor Jerry Brown was seen playing Wiffle Ball in the courtyard of his office at the state capitol in Sacramento.
The governor had good reason to relax. He's scored another victory in the legislative session that ended last week, persuading Senate Democrats to go along with his plan to spend $1 billion on prison beds to avoid the potential release of thousands of felons under a federal court order.
Passage of his plan was one in a string of wins this year during tussles with fellow Democrats who control both chambers of the legislature. At age 72, he came to office in 2011 facing almost crippling dysfunction in the state’s government, and vowed to use his ripened acumen to rein it in.
“At this stage in his life, he’s learned just about every trick in the books,” said John Pitney, who teaches politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
Brown, now 75, is in his third term as governor. His father, Pat, served two terms. Growing up in politics, Jerry Brown has spent more than a quarter-century in elected offices, including secretary of state, attorney general and mayor of Oakland.
That experience and chairmanship of the state Democratic Party have helped him cajole party members and strike compromises when Democrats sought to raise spending or clashed over how to overhaul school funding. In a year he’ll be up for re-election, though he hasn’t declared his intentions yet.
A majority of voters approve of his job performance, 51 percent to 33 percent, according to a Field Poll in July. He’s sitting on a $10 million mound of campaign cash, and Republican contenders for his office have yet to gain traction. All of that has allowed Brown to push his policy agenda mostly unfettered by traditional politics.
“He’s not in a position where he needs to sign bills because he is afraid of alienating his base or because he is afraid of alienating campaign donors or because he is afraid of losing votes to Republicans,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, near Palo Alto, California. “This gives him the luxury of picking and choosing.”
Whalen describes Brown as politically complicated.
“He is not a rubber-stamp governor and he is not a lockstep-liberal Democrat,” he said. “The legislature understands that under Jerry Brown, when they send him a bill, one of two things can happen, and one of them is not good.”
Brown began the year sparring with Democrats who wanted to boost spending. Voters in November approved higher sales and income taxes the governor sought to end persistent deficits that added up to more than $100 billion since 2007.
Brown insisted on using conservative economic estimates, saying growth would be curbed by higher federal payroll taxes and automatic U.S. budget cuts, known as sequestration. Democrats wanted to use a higher forecast to justify spending about $2 billion more.
The governor prevailed, and in June lawmakers passed a $96.3 billion budget, up less than 1 percent from the previous year and giving the state a $1 billion rainy-day reserve.
Brown and Democrats scuffled again last month when he proposed spending a third of that reserve this year to lease cells at private prisons in and out of the state. California’s prison system once locked up almost twice the number of prisoners it was designed to hold. Federal judges have ordered the state to cut the population to 137.5 percent of capacity.
Senate Democrats refused. They fought to spend $200 million to reduce lawbreaking with more rehabilitation, drug and mental-health treatment programs, and to set up a commission to study sentencing changes.
Brown struck a deal that got the plan he proposed, under the condition that he seek a delay from the court and spend any potential savings from such a postponement on programs to curb repeat offenders.
“He didn’t try to steamroll legislators,” said Thad Kousser, associate professor of politics at the University of California San Diego. “He waited, he was patient, he brought them to the table but he found allies in the legislature and won the support of the rank-and-file and that pushed leaders to agree with him.”
Brown also worked with Democrats to push through legislation they sought, including a bill he said he’ll sign to raise the state’s minimum wage 25 percent to $10 an hour. That would be the highest in the nation in 2016 when it takes effect.
Democrats also passed a bill, which Brown pledged to sign, that will allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, joining at least eight other states that now do so.
“I think we can accurately say that the governor has success with his legislative agenda as has the legislature,” said Senator Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco and chairman of the Budget and Fiscal Review Committee. “He gave uncommonly clear signals that he was prepared to sign those bills with some suggested amendments -- and so again, working with the legislature on a couple of very important and high-profile issues, we had a couple of successes.”
Still, Brown bucked environmentalists, traditional allies of Democrats, over a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing as the state prepares for development of the largest shale-oil reserves in the U.S.
The bill lawmakers sent him would for the first time require permits to inject millions of gallons of chemically treated water underground to free oil and natural-gas deposits. Energy companies would also have to disclose the ingredients in the chemicals.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, California League of Conservation Voters, Clean Water Action and Environmental Working Group, which sought more restrictions, said the bill was too watered down and withdrew their support.
In the case of another traditional issue for Democrats, gun control, Brown hasn’t said whether he’ll sign a package of bills that grew out of the massacre of Connecticut schoolchildren last year.
The measures would outlaw semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines, ban adapters to convert magazines to high-capacity clips, order safety certification to buy any gun and require ownership records for all firearms.
While lawmakers and Brown were mostly in accord in the end, there remain potential controversies that some Democrats are looking to bring up when they return in January.
Democratic lawmakers want to restore cuts in child-care, adult day-care and the Medi-Cal health-care program, said Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat who heads the Assembly budget committee. There’s also interest in expanding state pre-kindergarten programs, she said.
Brown hasn’t signaled he’d agree to those items, she said, noting that the governor even tried to block a modest increase in spending to process a backlog of claims from disabled veterans.
“I know the legislature -- both sides, the Assembly and the Senate -- are going to address this,” Skinner said. “That’s something we’re going to have to discuss.”