Live with Kelly...Er, Jerry!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Though he’s long in the tooth (a 75th birthday coming in April) and long on the job (overall, 10 years and counting as California’s governor), Jerry Brown isn’t long on tradition.

For example, tradition dictates that a California governor delivers the State of State address soon after the new year begins, followed a few days later by the release of his budget proposal (California’s new fiscal year begins in July).

That’s not the case in 2013. Brown’s already unveiled his budget (highlights here and the 248-page summary here). Tomorrow, two weeks after the budgetary data dump, he’ll deliver the State of the State.

Nuts and bolts first, vision second. It’s not as strange a thought as, say, Martin Luther King sharing his “dream” with Oprah before the March on Washington. Still, there’s a sense of doing things backwards in Sacramento.

Then again, there’s good reason for the switcheroo.

Brown ran for governor in 2010 on a promise to bring order to California’s finance. Assuming he seeks a second term in 2014, the budget again will be at the heart of his message – not anything he references in a State of the State address. So why not lead with his strength?

Here’s another break with standard fare – the speech’s scheduled 9 a.m. kickoff. The only politicians on at that hour are retired – and selling reverse mortgages.

Back when I wrote speeches for another California governor, Pete Wilson, we planned the big address for late in the afternoon/early in the evening, with one goal in mind: crashing the local news hour (something local news outlets agreed to – but only reluctantly, after arm-twisting by our press office). Arnold Schwarzenegger, never one to shy away from airtime, did the same, though in his second term and sinking under the weight of sinking approval ratings he moved his address to a late-morning start.

But Brown? His speech will start earlier than Arnold’s a.m. visits to the podium. And he’ll butt heads with the likes of Rachel Ray, Kelly Ripa and Kathie Lee and Hoda. Meaning: Brown’s speech will only run on those stations that happen to be doing their local morning shows.

Then again, will Californians be missing much of anything?

Ordinarily, this should be a fun, curious speech to anticipate. Brown enters the third year of his first term, a pivotal moment for any governor hoping to extend his stay in Sacramento beyond a fourth year. Moreover, he’s riding high after his tax-raisingProposition 30 carried the day last fall. And with the budget allegedly in balance, Brown can speak about matters other than the state’s fiscal woes, which dominated his previous addresses (here’s what he said in 2012 and 2011).

Then again, these aren’t ordinary times in Sacramento:

1)  Lack of Drama. A reporter asked an interesting question the other day: when Brown gives his speech, will he see a challenger in the room? My thought: no. Republicans are in disarray; at this point, a challenge by a fellow Democrat is a career-killer (there’s no grassroots discontent with the governor; and good luck raising money against an incumbent who can wield punishment). Brown seems a safe bet for a second term – if he so chooses. But he’s also probably too old to seek the presidency in 2016 (he’d be 78 by then).  What it adds up to: the governor’s a bird in a gilded cage – secure as far as his day job in concerned, but he can’t soar beyond the California border.

2)  Lack of Ambitious Options. On Thursday morning, you can expect Brown to talk tough on guns and immigration and implementing health care. He’ll revisit California’s water challenges – balancing the competing interests of rural and residential California. Having spent quality time earlier this monthin the realm of academia, he’ll have a few things to say about revamping higher-ed in the Golden State. But doing things of an ambitious nature requires money the state doesn’t have. Knowing voters will be asked to sign off on an $11 billion water bond in 2014, does Brown think the public is willing to spend big on other projects (that would include high-speed rail). And that leads us to . . .

3)  Lack of Legislative Restraint? Forget about GOP lawmakers – they lack the numbers to block bills, budgets or constitutional amendments. In 2013, Brown’s biggest challenge comes from . . . his fellow Democrats and the over-inflated egos and ambitions and agendas that come with owning two-thirds supermajorities in both legislative chambers. Can Democrats keep their mitts off Brown’s proposed $1 billion budget reserve? Or the cornucopia of revenue that unexpectedly arrived in January? What happens if that surplus lasts through the budget’s May revision? Remember: California economic forecasting is an inexact science, especially with federal and state rates having changed at the end of 2012 – two months before the “balanced” budget materialized, California’s Legislative Analyst foresaw a $1.9 billion deficit). Any budget surplus leads to the question of what to do with it: spend, or pay down debts. Does California’s governor acknowledge this in the big speech, or save his powder for later this spring, when the budget dance actually begins?

In 2011, in his first State of the State, Brown lectured the Legislature on what he saw as its main responsibility – getting spending in line with revenue. In 2012, Brown chose a different foil: defeatists and naysayers who the school of thought thatCalifornia’s in decline.

It remains to be seen whom Brown singles out in 2013: theMaloof brothers or Phil Mickelson, for wanting to give up on California? Does he take it out on conservatives for . . . well, seeing red in a big blue state?

Is Brown smug and boastful given last November’s big ballot win?  Or, instead, does he adopt the cynic’s view: California’s recovery is fragile and the state’s budget is an easily toppled house of cards?

Even if Brown manages to keep his speech to its usual modest framework (his previous two State of the State addresses combined lasted all of 20 minutes), it’s a lot of mull over for so early in the morning.


Follow Bill Whalen in Twitter: @hooverwhalen