Dan Walters: Jerry Brown on a big roll

dwalters@sacbee.comJuly 24, 2013 

Jerry Brown's second governorship got off to a rocky start as he squabbled with both Republicans and his fellow Democrats over the state budget's deficit and finally resorted to fiscal sleight of hand to balance it on paper.

For the last year, however, Brown has been on a roll. He persuaded voters to raise taxes to close the deficit with new taxes, and as the extra money rolled in, Brown forced Democratic legislators to curb their expansionist tendencies in favor of paying down debt and building reserves.

This year, the Legislature adopted his landmark overhaul of school finance, aimed at spending more money on schools with large numbers of poor and/or English learner students, following on a so-called realignment of state and county responsibilities that diverted thousands of low-level felons into county jails and supervision to reduce overcrowding in state prisons.

Brown's good fortune continues. The state's economy, mired in recession for a half-decade, is perking up and even more tax money is filling state coffers. Barring some X-factor, such as ill health, Brown will almost certainly run for a fourth term next year, and few political handicappers doubt that he will win, as a new Field Poll indicates.

Although down a bit, Brown's voter approval rating remains strong at 51 percent and a plurality supports his re-election, the poll found. Republicans remain disenchanted with Brown, not surprisingly, but their numbers are dwindling and their opposition is more than offset by strong backing among Democrats and independents.

Given the political arithmetic, it's doubtful whether an even semi-viable Republican opponent will emerge, and Brown has demonstrated an ability to raise millions in campaign funds if he needs them.

So are there any clouds on Brown's political horizon? There are a few, but none that is likely to turn dark over the next 16 months.

One is Brown's squabble with federal judges over prisons. They want him to drop another 10,000 inmates, but he says a cut of that size would require freeing dangerous felons to prey upon the public.

Brown is trying to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the reduction order, but if his effort fails and the inmates are released, he's inoculated himself from any political fallout.

Brown's plans for a bullet train and twin water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have drawn strong opposition, but they are slow-motion projects whose negative aspects, if any, won't show up for years, probably after he's out of office.

The budget could fall apart when the temporary new taxes expire, or if the economy sputters, but nothing bad will happen in the next 16 months.

In brief, Brown can coast to re-election and spend his final term securing his place in the history books.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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