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Breaking Down The State-Of-The-State

January 19, 2012 3:24 p.m.

Thad Kousser, UC San Diego political scientist

Midday Edition airs weekdays at noon on KPBS Radio

Related Story: Gov. Brown Makes Case For Higher Taxes


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Wednesday, January18th. Our top story on Midday Edition, governor Jerry Brown says California is on the mend with a lower deficit and steady job growth. But in the state of the state address, he warned that more painful cuts are still necessary. Joining me to talk about the speech, which was broadcast live here on KPBS, is my guest, Thad Kousser, UCSD political scientist who specializes in California politics and state legislatures.

KOUSSER: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: What's your general assessment of the governor's state of the state address?

KOUSSER: Well, this was the rosy glass is half full take on California. It was a speech about what's right with California. And I think that's important both for the governor to claim some victories last year with trailing the budget significantly and getting us out of most of the deficit, and at the time when he wants to ask voters to do something real tough, to raise our taxes in November. No one wants to invest in a failed state. And so he needed to outline the reasons why that will finish the job and keep California moving on the right track instead of just stopping it from running off the rails.

CAVANAUGH: And in fact, he said in no uncertain term, California is not a failed state. So he got that message through.

KOUSSER: Yeah, this is going to be an antimalaise speech.

CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about the state's shrinking deficit. It's now 1/4 of last year's $20billion. So it's now about five billion? Is that the projection?

KOUSSER: Well, it changes every few weeks depending on how tax revenues seem to be rolling in. We really won't know until about May when we see what those April15th tax returns look like. That it is when this deficit will get serious. A couple weeks ago, it looked like about $9billion. It was downgraded by the LOA, and it's bounced around.

CAVANAUGH: And he said, of course, that he doesn't like the cuts that are in his budget, and those cuts are mostly to social services and to Medi-Cal. I did read that he might have some difficulty getting the Democrats in the legislature to get on board with even more cuts on these social services and healthcare agencies.

KOUSSER: Sure. No one likes cuts. And California cut about $18billion from the budget last year. There were major cuts across the board, but they hit welfare services especially hard. And because other areas of government, mainly schools, elementary and high school education, is so much more popular than welfare spending, the areas that don't have quite -- a large interest group something them, and quite as much support from the general public get hit doubly hard. And things like childcare for folks who are poor and working. So nobody wants to make these cuts. Goodbye has asked the legislature to do it, and that will be a tough task for Democrats in the legislature.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you find it surprising that the governor did not spend a lot of time lobbying for this temporary tax proposal? It's pretty crucial to his entire budget plan for the state.

KOUSSER: I think it is. But the case the governor needs to make for Californians raising taxes, income and sales taxes temporarily to help get out of this deficit is a case that he now has to make to the public. So last year, he was trying to make a case to Sacramento legislatures to get them to vote to put this on the ballot. The people in the room at his state of the state were his audience last year. He failed to convince enough of those people in the room to vote to put this on the ballot, namely he couldn't get the four Republican votes that were needed. Now he's basically making the people, his audience of the state of the state today fairly irrelevant by going directly to the voters, and he's going to be -- his political allies will be funding a signature gathering campaign over the next few months to try to qualify a tax increase for the ballot in November. So now he's got to talk directly to voters.

CAVANAUGH: What governor Jerry Brown did talk about was a group of issues he wants to see legislative action on, and from this morning's speech, here's his agenda.

NEW SPEAKER: The year 2012 presents plenty of opportunity, and if we work together, we can stimulate job, build renewable energy, reduce pollution and green house gases, launch the nation's only high-speed rail system, reach agreement to a plan to fix the delta, improve our schools, reform our pensions, and make sure that prison realignment is working to protect public safety and reduce recidivism.

CAVANAUGH: That's governor Jerry Brown from this year's state of the state. That's quite an agenda!

KOUSSER: Yes, I've been studying governors across the state and looking at what that propose, and I'd have to say of the governor does all of that, he could be the most successful governor in American history. But it marks a substantial change from last year, where instead of giving the laundry list of proposals governor off give, he only talked about one thing last year, and that was putting a tax increase plan on the ballot. And the budget and the other parts of the budget solution. He batted about 500 because he got legislators to make major cuts to the budget, but he couldn't get that other side of the coin, which voters seem to back, which is a tax increase. He only got about half of what he wanted last year. If he gets half of that laundry list this year, he'll be doing pretty well.

CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about the high-speed rail and the delta restoration. They are both huge projects. Isn't that a tough sell in the legislature during an economy like this?

KOUSSER: Well, in any economy, California's vexing water issues, which going back to the 1970s, Jerry Brown faced trying to solve the promise of the delta. That will always be a tough call. It's difficult to ask California to both invest in these long-term future projects like high-speed rail at the same time they're cutting today. But it's important to note that these are two different funding sores. Governor Brown is asking legislatures to approve money and bond money that voters have approved in the past. Now, none of that money is money they could use to try to solve today's budget problems. The federal transit aid can't be used to solve the budget. The other, the aid that voters authorized specifically for that long-term purpose of a high-speed rail in 2008, they can't turn around and use that to solve today's budget deficit. So he's doing something that may seem contradictory on its face, but they don't mortgage California's long-term future to pay for today.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And something like the high-speed rail is federal dollars and bond money. But there's an awful lot concern that that is going to cost an awful rot more down the road. It's almost for, as the governor put it, a vote for the future of California.

KOUSSER: It's a vote for the faith in the future, and if we build this first segment through the central valley, we'll have a continued commitment that the federal government will continue to commit money, and the voters will continue to give the money that would extend it from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and ultimately from San Diego to Sacramento. The fear is if the money runs out and the commitment waivers, we couldn't have a bullet train to nowhere through the central valley.

CAVANAUGH: Which is something nobody really wants. What kind of political capital does Governor Brown have in Sacramento? Is there a chance he can reach compromises on some of these big issues?

KOUSSER: I think he does. Because he -- though his popularity isn't overwhelming, he's still much, much more popular than the legislature. All these politicos in office have eye sense of what he's doing with Supreme Courts, and he's running about 35 points above them. On his biggest proposal, which is the temporary tax increase, with the money earmarked for schools and public safety, that seems to be polling quite well. Competitors, a group called the think-long committee, that was thinking about putting a rival tax increase on the ballot just yesterday backed away from that. So it looks like the field is clear, and the voters are initially sympathetic to this call, and that's the political setup he needs for success on that tax measure.

CAVANAUGH: As we were listening to this speech, I noted that many San Diego teacher who is have called into this program were probably happy to hear about the governor's plan to reduce state-wide testing. Here's a short clip of what the governor said.

NEW SPEAKER: I believe it's time to reduce the number of tests and get the results that teacher, principles, and superintendents in weeks, not months.

NEW SPEAKER: Were you surprised that that was so prominent in the speech?

KOUSSER: Yes. I mean, education reform hasn't been a big part of Governor Brown's agenda. And we haven't heard this many details about changing funding formula, sending power back to local School Board, and in that clip getting rid of some of the tests we have. This was almost out of nowhere. I think it'll have some initial popularity, but figuring out how to make it work with no child left behind regulation, trying to figure out how to make sure those test results are reported very quickly. There may be some devils in those details.

CAVANAUGH: And there was a new plan to insure teacher accountability, which is kind of what those tests are supposed to be doing. What did he say about that?

KOUSSER: Well, what I heard was a discussion changing the way that grants are formed, are the way that schools are funded, and I may have missed exactly if there was any change in how teachers are rewarded or punished.

CAVANAUGH: I think he said it's a new form of assessments. He wants to have sight assessments. But he didn't go into how those assessments would be maintain. It sounds hike a really large project if they wanted to have people go to the sight of a school and see how people are doing.

KOUSSER: Yeah, anything that you want to do in California education costs -- will often cost a lot of money and be very hard to do just because there are so many schools. This is the biggest part of government. It's 40% of our state's budget, this is the majority of our state employees, and so trying to change education policy in California is like trying to move an ocean liner. And as we've seen recently, we got to worry about running up against the rocks.

CAVANAUGH: It's not an easy thing to do. Let me move on briefly, because it was brief, the governor made a joke at the expense of legislative Republicans at the beginning of his speech because they released their GOP response before he says he's speech was even finished am here's a clip from that GOP response.

NEW SPEAKER: Unfortunately, the governor's vision is centered around one thing: Higher taxes. Governor Brown says the sky will fall if Californians don't agree to a 35 budget deficit tax increase. You and I know this simply isn't so.

CAVANAUGH: That's Republican leader Connie Conway. Did they miss out on anything do you think, Thad, because they released their response before the speech?

KOUSSER: Yeah, I think the Republicans wound up with the same egg on their face that in some ways the governor did last week when his budget was posted prematurely on the state website, and he had to hurriedly call a press conference and didn't get the sort of attention that he might otherwise get. And Republicans did the same thing, posted their response by mistake 16 hours before the governor gave the speech. And what they're anticipating was very different than the message they got from Jerry Brown, which didn't talk about what'll happen if Californians fail to pass this tax increase. It focused on much more positive visions of California.

CAVANAUGH: The governor did give a nod to something that's very important to Republican, and that is the need for pension reform. But from what I heard, he advanced no ideas about how to achieve it.

KOUSSER: Well, are the governor has already come out with a very detailed plan about how he'd like to see pensions reformed. And what struck me in this speech is that he was quite open to legislative amendment to that plan. He said, look, I've -- I think it was like a 16-point plan out, put it out there, read it, study it, improve it. So he opened the door to legislators who are both loathe to change pensions but also motivated by the fact if they don't work with the governor, even stricter pension rollback ballot initiatives may appear in November. He really opened the door to legislators to work with him on this issue.

CAVANAUGH: There were several things on this speech, in the state of the state speech, that Governor Brown placed basically in the laps of the legislature. High-speed rail decisions, the delta restoration project, a number of other issues that he brought up. And considering the low approval rating for the legislature, he kind of sends a wave of fear out I think when people hear this, that oh, he's are -- maybe if they think these are good ideas. But are we going to see any movement on them?

KOUSSER: I think that's how American politics works. We give our governors the bullet pulpit. We give them the attention to propose things. But no governor can introduce a bill on his or her own. No president can. Upon the legislature which is faced far more to public transparency and input is where lawmaking has to happen. The governor goes down to the floor of the state assembly to give the speech, just as a president marches down Pennsylvania Avenue to give his state of the union. And so in American politics, you can't just elect a governor and be them be king. They have to work with lawmakers, and Jerry Brown recognizes this and put a lot in their laps and gave them a lot of responsibility and power in this speech.

CAVANAUGH: Quickly, my last question, was there anything you were expecting to hear in the state of the state that you think was missing?

KOUSSER: I was expecting, like the Republicans were, to be all about taxes and what might happen if Californians didn't, and how our schools might close three weeks earlier. I think the governor made the right decision to focus on his other positive visions for California and leave to the campaign season that pitch.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I've been speaking with Thad Kousser, UCSD political scientist. I want to thank you, Thad.

KOUSSER: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And if you missed Governor Brown's state of the state address, it will be rebroadcast tonight at 7:00 here on KPBS.