Jerry Brown's first 100 days: 'If he can't make it, where else can we turn?'

Gov. Jerry Brown's budget-balancing efforts over the past 100 days have received praise from citizens and pundits, but he has failed to get Republican support for tax extensions.

By , Staff writer

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    Gov. Jerry Brown talks with reporters in Sacramento, Calif., April 6. Brown said he is still hoping to strike a deal with GOP lawmakers to extend certain taxes to help close the rest of the state budget deficit. In the background at left is Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin and at right is Long Beach Chief of Police Jim McDonnell.
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Despite his troubles – including a $26.4 billion deficit still only half-plugged – Gov. Jerry Brown (D) of California has gotten mostly good marks from polls and political analysts on his first 100 days in office.

His administration has focused almost entirely on balancing the California budget, which Governor Brown has tried to do through spending cuts and a tax extension that has found no Republican support – yet.

“Appraising Jerry Brown's first 100 days is like appraising the first lap of the Indy 500. He's moving as fast as he can, and he hasn't crashed yet. But it's too early to tell if he'll be successful in the end,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

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Recent polls show positive approval ratings from Californians. An April 7 poll found that 49 percent approve of his performance as governor, with 42 percent disapproving. The California Field Poll, released two weeks before, had a similar approval rating (48 percent) but much lower disapproval rate (21 percent).

Republican voters, not surprisingly, are not so enamored of Governor Brown. The Field Poll shows that only 25 percent approve and 35 percent disapprove of his job performance.

“Brown entered office in the midst of a financial crisis. He offers a leadership style that is clearly different from his predecessor and also from governors around the country attempting to solve their own budget problems,” says Craig Wheeland, a political scientist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “[He] established an agenda to deal with the financial problems made worse by the Great Recession and accomplished some important spending reductions. We should not expect much more from the first 100 days.”

Tuesday, his 100th day in office, finds Brown on the road, still searching for ways to close the state’s remaining $15 billion budget deficit. He signed 13 budget bills on March 24 that reduced the state deficit by $11 billion, mostly through spending cuts. But he still needs four Republican legislators to sign off on a tax extension to avoid the need for a special election or an all-cuts budget.

“A few months ago, I thought there was a chance that he would welcome Republicans pulling him to the right, but I was wrong,” says Roger Niello, a former Republican Assemblyman.

To build the needed Republican support, Brown is visiting GOP districts and appearing in press conferences with fire fighters, police officers, and educators whose budgets will be slashed if he can’t pass the tax extension.

Brown has also posted YouTube videos where he talks directly to voters. “When the elected officials find themselves bogged down by deep differences which divide them, the only way forward is to go back to the people and seek their guidance,” he says in a recent offering, sitting behind an oak desk with the California flag behind him.

All of this is quite a different approach, say Professor Wheeland and others, than the comic-book and sometimes pushy techniques of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who left office in January with a rating lower than that of Gray Davis, the governor who Mr. Schwarzenegger replaced in a 2003 recall election. Schwarzenegger was often praised for his humor and charm but occasionally went too far, as when he called legislators “girlie men” and later found all four of his initiatives to reform California government rejected by voters.

L.A. Times columnist George Skelton, one of the state’s top two political writers, credits Brown with changing the tone of the debate: “Virtually everyone you talk to, at least privately, gives the guy credit for lifting the level of dialogue, especially concerning the easily politicized budget deficit. He’s doing his homework and speaking with knowledge. Staying away from hyperbole. Not talking down to people. Paying legislators respect.”

Analysts say Brown’s key hurdle at the moment is not of his doing, but reflects attitudes that have been around at least since his first two terms, from 1975-1983.

“The partisan gridlock for the necessary two-thirds vote necessary for ballot initiative placement is an old, unresolved issue,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “The governor should be commended for his focus on fiscal solvency, collaborative solutions and educating the public on these issues.”

Other analysts say California’s problems might just be systemic.

“If Brown fails, Californians might start despairing about state government, because we've tried everything,” says Professor Pitney. “We tried a colorless technocrat – Gray Davis – and threw him out of office in a recall. We tried a celebrity action hero – Arnold Schwarzenegger – and he left with an approval rating in the basement. Now we're trying a seasoned pol whom we've tried before. If he can't make it, where else can we turn? To a Martian?”

Others say entrenched problems are a sign of the political times, reflected everywhere from statehouses to Congress.

“Without compromise between parties that control different branches of government, how can government operate?” asks Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “Will Jerry Brown come up with the solution that will be copied at the federal level? All we can do is ‘stay tuned.’ ”

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