Governor Moonbeam Hides Again

With his veto of the budget, Governor Jerry Brown has given a new generation of California voters and politicians a reprise of the Jerry Brown we oldsters came to know and disrespect, a governor who manages to be both gutless and reckless at the same time.

Since the first day of his return to the governor’s seat, Brown has declared that California must bring its budget into long-term balance. That will require, he told the state, both spending cuts and extension of the temporary tax increases enacted in February 2009. Absent the tax extensions, he said, the state would be required to enact an all-cuts budget that slices deep into the sinew of schools, colleges, and other state services.

But even as he delivered that message, he refused to take the responsibility of asking the Legislature directly to enact the tax extensions he himself declared necessary. Instead, he asked only that the Legislature agree to ask the voters if they would please approve the needed tax extensions. This is an old pattern for Brown. In his first stint of governor, for example, he ducked taking political responsibility for a needed increase in the fuel tax by making the increase contingent on county boards of supervisors’ approving the increase county by county. Then and now, when it comes time to take a stand on taxes, Brown positions himself on the sidelines, behind the ladies’ skirts.

And now the same is true on the question of a balanced budget. If he truly believes that “a balanced budget is critical to our economic recovery, ” as he said in his budget veto message, Brown had it entirely in his power to achieve that result by using his line item veto power to reduce spending to the level of available revenues.

That would have required, as he wrote, “deeper and more destructive cuts to schools and public safety.” At the same time, though, it would have made plain what’s at stake this year. It would have forced Republicans and their voters to feel the full consequences of their anti-tax mania and perhaps opened the door to some second thoughts.

But it would also have required Brown to take political responsibility for a balanced but all-cuts budget. And that prospect sent him scurrying for safety under the petticoats.

In the present situation, that gutlessness amounts to recklessness. There is no obvious path to a better budget result. Republicans in the Legislature have shown no interest in taking any political risk to pass a budget. Democrats, having stuck out their necks to vote for a budget with spending cuts disapproved by the majority of California voters, will begin to wonder why they ought to take arrows for a governor who won’t risk anything for what he says he believes. The state is short on cash and even shorter on investor confidence. It is hard to see how this will turn out better than any of Jerry Brown’s earlier reckless acts, like appointing Rose Bird as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Yes, gutless and reckless: Jerry, you old dog, you still do the same old tricks.