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Does Governor Jerry Brown Have The Skills To Bring Change To Sacramento?

Does Governor Jerry Brown Have The Skills To Bring Change To Sacramento?
Does Jerry Brown have what it takes to get the state budget passed on time, and to bring an end to the hyper-partisan politics that have defined California government over the last decade? We speak to political consultant Leo McElroy about what Jerry Brown will bring to the governor's office, and discuss the challenges Brown will face in his first couple months in office.

Does Jerry Brown have what it takes to get the state budget passed on time, and to bring an end to the hyper-partisan politics that have defined California government over the last decade? We speak to political consultant Leo McElroy about what Jerry Brown will bring to the governor's office, and discuss the challenges Brown will face in his first couple months in office.


Leo McElroy, non-partisan Sacramento political consultant and contributor to Morning Edition on KPBS


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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: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. California governor Jerry Brown is not scheduled to release a budget proposal until next week, but the outline of his plan has been leaking since before brown took office on Monday. His plan to cover an anticipated $28 billion state budget deficit is includes asking voters to decide how deep the cuts to education and social services should be. That direct approach coupled with a new state law allowing budgets to pass with a simple majority may help break the political grid lock in Sacramento. But then again, it may not. Here to evaluate the chances is my guest, Leo McElroy, a nonpartisan Sacramento political consultant and contributor to Morning Edition here on KPBS. Leo, good morning.

MCELROY: Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now is the biggest challenge facing brand-new governor Jerry Brown the budget or is it partisan politics in Sacramento.

MCELROY: Well, one is the roadblock on the way to the other, I think is the truth. The challenge obviously has to be the budget, because it's the very survival of this state as a functioning entity. But the path to finding answers is going to be very difficult because of the excessive partisanship in Sacramento that is much worse Jerry experienced in his previous eight years as governor.

CAVANAUGH: Take us back a little bit, Leo. We know, of course, that this is a redo for Jerry Brown. He has been govern before of but what was he like when he served as governor in the late 70s?


MCELROY: Well, you know, I like to say that when injury came in as the youngest governor in California history, he was the new age governor. Now he's the oldest governor in California history and the old age good afternoon. But at that time, he was innovative, a little dismissive of many of the procedures in government, tended to take his own counsel over that of others, and managed to annoy an awful lot of what were then career legislatures. We didn't have term limits at that time. A lot of those lawmakers had been around for a long time. Both parties, they had achieved the functionality they felt of getting along much of the time, and Jerry Trumped on some tows to the point that at one stretch issue he was actually forbidden the legislative chambers. I mean, they ruled that the governor cannot come in this room.

CAVANAUGH: Well, it doesn't really bode very well, but as you say, there have been a lot of years intervening, and one would imagine that things have changed in Sacramento and maybe Jerry Brown himself has changed in the interim.

MCELROY: I think that's what happened probably is that Jerry has mellowed, I think he's a different guy, I think he's certainly more mature, one way or another. But I think he has a better grasp of how to deal with a variety of people then and there he used to have. On the other hand, the legislature is now pricklier than it used to be and more difficult. So Jerry may have gotten a little better at the relationship game, and the legislature may have gotten a little less capable of it. And that's going to give us the same old conundrum of how do these guys work together to get something done.

CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about what we've heard so far about governor brown's ideas on closing this budget gap. We've heard that he wants to have a special election later this year. What would that be for?

MCELROY: Well, what he would like to do is extend a number of tax cuts that -- or tax increases, rather, that are due to expire. And such things as license fees and a number of other revenue measures that were due to go away and lower the tax burden. The govern would like to keep those in place to keep the revenues up, but he has vowed that he will ask the people for permission, and if not, then he'll live within whatever the budget is. So in June, his plan would be go to the public saying here's what the budget is if you approve us keeping these taxes at the present level rather than cutting them. And here's what the budget's gonna be if you insist that we go ahead and cut these tax revenues back. And there's gonna be plenty of pain to go around in that first budget. And way more pain, the torture chamber is gonna be the second budget, 'cause it's gonna be really awful, and it's gonna have terrible things in the scenario, in terms of state programs or child support and the aged and disabled, and for businesses as well. Everybody's gonna get hurt in the budget if the people don't want approve the temporary retention of present tax levels.

CAVANAUGH: So this is, in essence, asking voters to make the decision about how deep the cuts should be to social services and even to the education budget.

MCELROY: That's right. And what he's trying to do, I think, is provide a graphic example. You know, we always talk about this, oh, well, if this doesn't happen then something dire is going to happen. I think he's going to give us definitions. I think he's going to say, okay, this is the program that will be cut back, but if you don't approve the tax retention at the present level, that program's gonna go away. We're not gonna have any of this, we're not gonna have any of this, the schools are going to see classroom size increase. This is one thing that he's already done that's a nice bit of political maneuvering, I think. . He has already said that in his present budget, he is going to preserve the schools from further cuts. But if the people don't approve the retention of the tax increase, if they don't approve the added revenue, then the schools are really gonna get hammered. So what he's done is created an ally for himself with parents, with the School Boards, and particularly with the very powerful teachers' union, giving them a motivation to check in on that June election and say, hey, vote for it, vote for it, vote for it, we need it. He's building allies right there.

CAVANAUGH: We're talking about new California governor Jerry Brown and his proposals to close the budget gap. And I'm speaking with Leo McElroy, he's a nonpartisan Sacramento political consultant, and of course, contributor to morning edition here on KPBS. Will Leo, there's been a big headliner in Sacramento about governor brown's, perhaps his desire to eliminate city development funds of we've have a lot of things that city funds might be targeted for, the new Chargers stadium might be using redevelopment funds, convention center expansion would use those funds. So can the governor shut down redevelopment funds just on his own?

MCELROY: I think that's going to be subject to a legal challenge, if I read the statements coming out of the redevelopment agencies. But arguably, yes. Arguably, he can do it. What the governor is going to say is that -- A, redevelopment agencies function too much on their own and not under local control, and he wants the control to go back to local government to decide what's going to get done, rather than having a redevelopment agency make those decisions, and he's going to rely on a finding by the legislative analyst's office that came out last year that said there is no real evidence that redevelopment agencies are creating jobs in California; which is one of the arguments for their existence. So the governor will say, no, let's just give the money back to the local government, back to the county, back to the city, and let them decide which redevelopment projects they want to go ahead with without having an agency like that independently deciding for them.

CAVANAUGH: And you see a shake up like that ending up in the Courts.

MCELROY: I think it's absolutely gonna get challenged. I think there's no question about it. They're going to argue that the voters have already said you can't take away local funds, this will be a deprivation of local funds, even though the governor will say the money's still gonna go to the locality, but it's not gonna go through that agency. It's gonna be a legal battle primarily for the scholars, 'cause the issues are gonna be pretty arcane and pretty much digging in the law books to try to find the clause that gives you a little advantage over your other side.

CAVANAUGH: Those wonderful technicalities.

MCELROY: Oh, yeah, this is gonna be a hard one to follow. I gotta tell you that the sure cure for no doze is gonna be sitting in on those court sessions.

CAVANAUGH: Leo, we've been talking primarily about govern brown, but where does the legislature fit into all of this? Where does the legislature fit into new budget proposals and special elections and as we move forward into 2011?

MCELROY: Well, it's interesting because the legislature in one sense thanks to this last election has had the strait jacket taken off. California now, like 47 other states, is a state that can pass pay budget by a majority vote. We were one of three that insisted on a super majority to pass a budget. Now, Rhode Island and ark saw are all by themselves in that regard. We can have a majority billion. And the minority party cannot holdup the budget. So there goes the strait jacket. However, we put huffs on with another vote which said they cannot raise fees or other revenue measures without a super majority. And up till now, fees, for example, could be raised by a majority vote. On the one hand, you got the legislature free to do one thing, on the other hand, you got them not free to raise the main to pay for it.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So if indeed a budget includes an increase in fees or taxes, it still needs a two thirds majority.

MCELROY: That's correct.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

MCELROY: That's correct. So the minority party still has its bargaining power. If you want to increase revenues, friends, you gotta come through us, they're going to say. Democrats are gonna recognize that that's the case, that there isn't much other way to do it. . Now, there is some theory that the legislature can put revenue measures on the ballot and go directly to the people with a revenue measure of they can't pass it themselves, but they can present it to the people on the ballot and that they can do that by a majority vote rather than a two thirds vote. That will wind up in court also.

CAVANAUGH: I see of you've been very eloquent, Leo, in the past, talking about the partisan political problems in Sacramento and the grid lock, and we just talked a minute ago about how new governor brown might respond to this partisan atmosphere in Sacramento. Is the introduction of governor Jerry Brown doing anything to mitigate or change that break down that you've seen in Sacramento for so long?

MCELROY: No, I don't think it is. But I do think what's happening is that everyone's keeping their powder dry for a moment and trying not to start shooting because they're not sure what he's going to do. Jerry in the past has shown some ability to navigate these waters in interesting ways. It was years ago that he said the job of governing is you paddle a little on the left, and you paddle a little on the right. So Jerry has shown a willingness to go over and paddle a bit on the other side of the political fence. Will and I don't think anybody wants to pick a fight with him right now because they're not sure which side the paddle's going to be on. But somewhere down the line, that hyper partisanship is still going to be felt. I mean, we really do have parties that -- those causes are distillations of their most extreme positions. The Republicans tend to be extreme right, the Democrats tend to be extreme left, and gee, is it a surprise they don't get along?

CAVANAUGH: No. It hasn't been a surprise for a while. Now, you just finished telling us about how the election, the approval of the proposition 25, a simple majority in passing the budget, might change things in Sacramento. Voters also approved a plan to support the citizens' redistricting commission that they already created in the previous election to redraw the state's legislative districts. That commission is actually getting up to steam at this point. So how do you think that's going to affect California politics in the near future and the far future?

MCELROY: I think that's going to be a rolling earthquake that's gonna remake the landscape. The governor's -- the Schwarzenegger governorship has a couple of items of legacy. One of course was the green house gas regulations. But the other two are the change in the primary system to the top two primary which tends to eliminate the appeal of the most partisan member of a party. The other is the redistricting commission. And those two things really will change the political landscape because they're going to tend to mitigate votes and push it away from the most extreme member of the party that dominates that district and push it into competitive districts where it arguably may be the more centrist, more easy to get along with candidate who begins to win these elections. This could start to break down that hyper partisanship. It'll take a while. It's gonna take a while because we haven't had much change fair long time, we have a lot of interned legislators, none the less, I would say that six years from now when this had really had time to take effect, you're gonna see a very different legislature.

CAVANAUGH: Why six years?

MCELROY: Well, it's hard to get an incumbent out of office, very honestly. So it takes that long for the term limits to flush people out. We're gonna start seeing it in two years, we're gonna see an added impact in four, and by six years, we will have had elections held under the new rules in every district.

CAVANAUGH: When will -- I'm sorry, go ahead, finish your thought. I'm sorry.

MCELROY: And I think that, getting the new crop of legislators in under those new rules, is what's going to really remake it. We'll see the change coming but it's not gonna be complete probably for I would think six years.

CAVANAUGH: I was just wondering as you were speaking, when are we actually gonna have to see whether or not we're in a new legislative district because of what this citizens' redistricting commission has -- how they've redrawn the landscape.

MCELROY: I think they're going to crank it up fairly fast. There were computer programs that I've seen that can do it in a matter of seconds.


MCELROY: You can go to, for instance, the Rose Institute down at Clairemont colleges. They have this stuff all in computers. They have for years, years ago, I went and did I star when I was a reporter on their computer system, and you say, okay, take this county, take Los Angeles county with lots of districts, here's the map now, red and blue district, what happens if you want to maximize Democrats and they push a button and the thing goes practically all blue. And you -- I say, okay, maximize Republicans they push another button, and boom, and the district lines change and it goes all red. Okay, go competitive district, what's the most competitive and boom they push a button. Of so you can do this in a matter of seconds. Of the question is defining what your aim is and what you want to accomplish. For instance, you can do competitive districts but perhaps it might short change the Latino population by spreading them out over a bunch of districts instead of giving them a strong couple of districts of their own. So there are always these things to balance. That said though, the computerization is there. It's only going to be a question of the commissioners and that broad base that they represent, of defining just how they of the to set the standards. And I don't think it's gonna take a long time.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I tell you, that's a really concise example of how important all of that is, is to -- who gets into office. I want to move on in our last minutes here to two of the other new phases in Sacramento. Former San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris will be the first woman and first African American to search as California attorney general. So what challenges is she gonna be facing in her first year?

MCELROY: Well, she's, A, going to face the challenge that the governor has posed to the other constitutional officers that he is cutting his staff and his budget by 25 percent. And he's challenging them to do the same thing. So in Kamala Harris' case because she has the largest staff of anybody in the justice department, a 25 percent cut is going to be really substantial. It's gonna take a lot of deciding and a lot of work. And if she goes after that, that's gonna occupy a huge amount of her time for the first months in office, and it's going to make it a lot more difficult for her to take on ambitious new programs. Secondly, once she's cut the staff by that much, the question will be whether the remaining staff can keep up with the responsibilities they now have to keep on keeping on representing all the state agencies as well as taking on new projects. New projects are easy to take on when you got some added money to put people on the job. But it's a little tough when you've gotta pull people off work they're doing now and still worry about whether the work is getting done.

CAVANAUGH: And finally, former high profile San Francisco Mary, Gavin Newsom, will be our next lute governor. I'm wondering, is he gonna be happy, do you think, in that position of Lt. Governor?

MCELROY: I have to tell you from personal experience, my one hitch in government was working for the Lieutenant governor's office. I was the press secretary and speech writer for Lt. Governor Leo McArthy who had been assembly speaker for a number of years and then because Lt. Governor. He did not love it.


MCELROY: He did not love it. It was like putting him in a rocking chair. And much of our job at the small staff that the Lt. Governor has, he doesn't have a lot of staff, our job was to try to find things for him to do that were halfway meaningful to satisfy his desire to accomplish things. Gavin is an active guy. And he is going to be very restive and very uneasy at basically being put on the back bench and told, here, hang around, kid, in case we need you.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. Of all very interesting things to watch, Leo. I want to thank you so much for speaking with us this morning.

MCELROY: You bet, Maureen, it was my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Leo McElroy, nonpartisan Sacramento political consultant and contributor to morning edition here on KPBS. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Coming up, San Diego district attorney Bonnie MCELROY is here to talk about the sentence reduction for Esteban Núñez. That's here as These Days continues on KPBS.