State of the State: Jerry Brown twists Republican arms – with a smile

Jerry Brown's State of the State met expectations: 15 minutes focused on his plan for closing California's $25.4 billion deficit, with just a touch of humor to try to bring Republicans on board.

Max Whittaker/Reuters
California Governor Jerry Brown speaks to reporters after delivering the State of the State address in Sacramento, Ca. on Jan. 31. Brown pressed California lawmakers in his state-of-the-state address on Monday to let voters decide on his budget plan, saying any attempt to block a special election on the issue would be irresponsible.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s State of the State address was everything most experts said it would and could be: serious, focused, not without humor – and very short.

In about 15 minutes, he stuck Monday to the sober task of how to close the state’s $25.4 billion deficit by pushing on Republicans to agree to the special election he needs in June for voters to raise taxes. Frankly, but without being caustic, he quickly touched on the extended levies on income, sales, and cars needed to close that gap.

“He ratcheted up pressure on Republicans in the legislature but was very careful not to sound like he is threatening voters,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “He’s been very careful not to do that while at the same time making sure they know there are worse options.”

State budget woes: How much will they drag down US economy?

Reiterating a key point from his Jan. 3 inaugural address, Governor Brown asked legislators to put aside their partisan differences for the good of the state. “Under our form of government, it would be unconscionable to tell the electors of this state that they have no right to decide whether it is better to extend current tax statutes another five years or chop another $12 billion out of schools, public safety, our universities, and our system of caring for the most vulnerable,” he said.

“My plan to rebuild California requires a vote of the people, and frankly I believe it would be irresponsible for us to exclude the people from the process,” he continued.

Arm-twisting, with levity

Avoiding the lengthy, highly detailed, agenda-heavy diatribes that many State of the State addresses have become, Brown interjected arm-twisting with levity.

“I want to see a few Republicans clapping on that,” he said drolly after announcing “it is time for a legislative check-in” with the people. “Or, if you want to block the people’s right to vote, stand up and say, ‘Block that punt!’ ”

Other analysts said the address was “professorial,” but not without charm.

“He didn’t use a teleprompter – the first I’ve seen that in years – and was very earnest because of it, I think it worked for him,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “It was very crisp, Mr. Chips like – the visual image was cute.”

In a tactic that some analysts felt worked, others didn’t, and still others said came out of left field, Brown invoked the crisis in Egypt to push legislators to support his proposed referendum.

“When democratic ideals and calls for the right to vote are stirring the imagination of young people in Egypt and Tunisia and other parts of the world, we in California can’t say now is the time to block a vote of the people.… The state belongs to all of us, not just the people in this chamber.”

“In typical Jerry Brown fashion, he combined a sensible discussion of fiscal policy with an off-the-wall analogy to Egypt,” said Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “So if lawmakers pass tax and budget measures without going to the people, do they really resemble a brutal dictator?”

Any better ideas?

Brown challenged critics who believe they have better ideas to “let the different ideas come forth.”

“California faces a crisis that is real and unprecedented,” Brown said, saying the times demanded action “boldly and without delay.”

“The only way forward is to go back to the people and seek their guidance,” Brown argued, citing the deep divisions in the legislature between Democrats loath to make further deep cuts to social programs and Republicans adamantly opposed to tax increases.

At an impromptu news conference after the speech, Brown expressed dismay at Republican lawmakers for not expressing exactly how they would balance the budget. “Brown made a big point of saying – and it seemed pretty genuine – that if anyone has any suggestions please let me know,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Center for Governmental Studies.

Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton noted that voters have already rejected an extension of the taxes that Brown wants to extend – in 2009. “Higher taxes didn’t solve the problem two years ago, [and] it won’t solve it now,” now Dutton said. “Taxpayers already said no.”

Overall, Ms. Levinson says she was reminded that “Brown is not a fantastic public speaker. Maybe he avoided the teleprompter because he didn’t want to have a [Michele] Bachmann moment," referring to the way that the Minnesota congresswoman appeared to be staring off camera in her tea party rebuttal to the State of the Union address.

"He read in a way that seemed like he was timing himself," she said. "He actually is at his best when he looks up and goes off script.”

State budget woes: How much will they drag down US economy?

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