Governor Jerry Brown's "State of the State" speech last night was probably so familiar that you might have thought you'd written it yourself. He outlined, in remarkably plain terms, the crisis that the state faces and, unlike his predecessor, took an adult approach to bipartisan cooperation. In his eyes, there were no girlie-men in the chamber. Instead, his rhetoric suggests that he was speaking to a group of public servants with different ideologies and a common challenge.
It's rare these days that political discourse includes so much as a cursory gesture towards respect for the opposition. Usually one party decries the others as whackos, incompetents, and traitors -- no matter how many elections they win. And yet, there was Brown, planting his flag directly down the middle of the aisle: "If you are a Democrat who doesn't want to make budget reductions in programs you fought for and deeply believe in, I understand that. If you are a Republican who has taken a stand against taxes, I understand where you are coming from." Is anyone in DC listening to this?
Partisanship is only one divide, however, that the new governor will have to address en route to saving, or collecting, $24 billion. So far, Brown has yet to breath a word about Prop. 13 reform, which would the game-changer (as well as the first sign of the Apocalypse, if you ask some people). Instead, Brown is picking less daunting battles. As CP&DR -- and every other news organization in the state -- has already covered extensively, his bid to eliminate redevelopment has stirred the passions of a remarkably powerful constituency: nearly every city and nearly every local official in the state.
Last night, the governor held his ground, saying unequivocally, "I come down on the side of those who believe that core functions of government must be funded first." Sacramento insiders with whom I have spoken say that he's going to hold his ground.
Of course, this is asymmetric warfare, because there is not really such thing as an "anti-redevelopment" constituency. Sure, there are free-market advocates such as the Reason Foundation. And there are scholars who -- more often than not -- throw up their hands and say, "I don't know" when you ask them if redevelopment creates a net economic or social gain for the state. The silent majority, however, seems to be on the governor's side. A recent PPIC poll suggests that over 60 percent of Californians approve of the elimination of redevelopment in order to help balance the budget. Whether they feel this way because they believe that redevelopment is evil or because they simply don't know what redevelopment is is anyone's guess.
The governor is, however, getting an earful from everyone from the California Redevelopment Association to the mayors of the state's ten largest cities, who descended upon the Capitol en masse a few days ago. As Brown acknowledged in his speech, "Mayors from cities both large and small have come to the capitol and pressed their case that redevelopment is different from child care, university funding or grants to the aged, disabled and blind." And Brown is favoring the latter.
Of course, Brown now stands in an interesting position, which is either incredibly powerful or monumentally hypocritical, depending how you look at it. Not long ago, Brown was one of those mayors (albeit in much headier economic times). And you can bet that if he were still mayor of Oakland and Gov. Whitman were making same proposal, he would be making the same pleas.
Brown has tried, somewhat successfully, to evade the hypocrisy trap by resorting to candor. In numerous public statements, he has freely--almost cavalierly--acknowledged the usefulness of redevelopment in restoring, for example, his beloved Fox Theater in Oakland. But he follows this admission almost always by wave of incredulity: wouldn't it be nice if we lived in a state where we didn't have to sacrifice such nice things as restored movie palaces?
Yes, it would. But, thus far into Brown's third term, it seems that we may not.