Dan Walters: Jerry Brown's big issues have stalled
04/19/2013 12:00 AM
04/22/2013 7:18 AM
Jerry Brown spent the first two years of his second governorship dealing with a chronic budget crisis and finally persuaded voters to raise sales and income taxes to narrow the budget gap.
It's debatable whether Brown has truly resolved California's fiscal woes, since the budget is "balanced" only by ignoring several major issues, such as an immense deficit in the teachers pension fund and mounting costs for retiree health care.
Moreover, the new taxes are temporary, while the tax ballot measure, Proposition 30, included a permanent, $5 billion-plus annual commitment to counties. Thus, Brown may leave behind a new budget problem if and when he finishes his last term in 2019.
For the moment, however, Brown has declared victory on the budget and moved on to other items on his agenda, most prominently – if one believes his State of the State speech – overhauling school finance and reforming the California Environmental Quality Act.
Brown made his education case "for cutting categorical programs and putting maximum authority and discretion back at the local level," plus giving more money to districts with large numbers of poor and "English-learner" students.
Regarding CEQA, Brown said, "Our approach needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays."
Three months later, however, both of those high-profile concepts have hit solid walls of political opposition.
Brown's school plan wins plaudits in a new statewide voter poll, but affluent suburban school districts that would be losers and advocates of categorical aid programs have mounted effective opposition. And Brown himself conceded this week that significant CEQA reform, which is strongly opposed by environmental groups and labor unions, may be a nonstarter this year.
Meanwhile, one of Brown's earlier moves, aimed at reducing the prison population without directly releasing felons, is running into big trouble.
That $5 billion commitment to counties in Proposition 30 was to pay for keeping low-level felons in local jails and probation oversight, rather than sending them to state prison, thus allowing the prison population to shrink by attrition.
It has, indeed, shriveled dramatically, but there's rising criticism among local law enforcement officials about crimes being committed by the redirected offenders, and Brown's plea to federal judges to suspend further reductions has fallen on deaf ears.
Brown contends that dropping inmate populations more will require direct release of up to 10,000 dangerous felons, but he's being threatened with contempt of court if he refuses to reduce prison overcrowding more.
If his agenda continues to stall, Brown may recall his budget wrangles as the good old days.
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