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SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS: Sen. Ted W. Lieu assesses how Gov. Jerry Brown handled legislation
October 11, 2011
By Steven Harmon
Bay Area News Group
SACRAMENTO -- In deciding the fate of 563 bills the Legislature sent him last month, Gov. Jerry Brown was, well, Jerry Brown.
He defied easy description.
The governor delivered big time to his Democratic base by signing one bill to move all ballot measures to November elections -- when more Democrats vote -- and another bill granting undocumented college students the ability to apply for state grants and financial aid. In addition, he banned most California residents from openly carrying unloaded handguns.
However, he angered some in his own party with several tough vetoes, including one bill that sought to allow public universities to consider race, ethnicity and gender in admissions policies. Another veto thwarted Democrats' hopes of unionizing child-care workers.
"No matter where you stand, he made you happy and sad at the same time," said Roger Salazar, a Democratic political consultant. "There's no secret that he's trying to govern from the middle. It seems to be the Jerry Brown of old holding true."
Brown had predicted that lawmakers would be "singing the veto blues," but wound up vetoing only 97 bills, a 17 percent veto rate for the recently ended summer session. Overall this year, Brown vetoed only 14 percent of 889 bills.
Those are low totals compared with some of his predecessors. George Deukmejian vetoed a record 436 bills -- 20 percent -- in 1990, while Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed 414 -- 35 percent -- in 2008.
However, Brown this year almost doubled the average veto rate during his first two terms as governor from 1975 to 1983.
"The vetoes weren't numerous, but they were significant," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "Some of those that he vetoed had a great deal of symbolic content."
Vetoes 'gave insight'
Brown slapped down dozens of bills that would have expanded the scope of government, and others that would have placed burdens on businesses, winning praise from the California Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.
"I didn't agree with the governor on all issues, but he thoughtfully considered all bills, and that's all we can ask," said Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance. "I think he showed he is a very independent governor who makes up his own mind. I rather like his veto messages. They gave insight into how he thinks and governs."
But some legislators weren't feeling that generous after reading Brown's scathing critiques of their work.
In vetoing SB 14, a measure authored by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, that called for "performance based" budgeting, Brown bristled with disdain, calling the proposal "another siren song" of budget reform.
"The politically expedient course would be to sign this," he wrote. "But the hard truth is that this bill will mandate thousands of hours of work -- at the cost of tens of millions of dollars -- with little chance of actual improvement."
Wolk said the governor blew it.
"He wants to go to the people for taxes, so he has to show he understands people don't trust the way we spend their money," she said. "This was an opportunity to do it. It wasn't a panacea. It was a step in the right direction."
Another bill, SB 547, aimed at enhancing the performance accountability of schools, met with Brown's repugnance toward American education's testing culture.
"Instead of recognizing that perhaps we have reached testing nirvana, editorialists and academics alike call for ever more" new tests, he wrote. "SB 547 nowhere mentions good character or love of learning. (It) does not take these qualities seriously because they can't be placed in a data stream. Lost in the bill's turgid mandates is any recognition that quality is fundamentally different from quantity."
Taking tough stances
While he often delved deep into the weeds of legislation, his strokes were bold, too. Brown can lay claim to enacting the most far-reaching new gun laws in the nation this year, handing major victories to gun-control advocates -- and a poke in the eye to Second Amendment activists -- by banning most residents from openly carrying unloaded handguns in public places and requiring that all rifles be registered.
The governor sometimes seemed to be trying to stand up for the little guy, signing into law bills requiring that health care insurers cover behavioral treatment of children with autism, prohibiting those younger than 18 from using tanning beds and allowing children 12 and older to receive vaccinations without their parents' consent against the human papilloma virus and other sexually transmitted diseases.
However, he also went to bat for the powerful and influential: In asking whether one medical-related measure would lead to a "path to greater knowledge or unnecessary anxiety," he parroted the California Medical Association's opposition to the bill.
Senate Bill 791 by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, would have required physicians to inform patients who have dense breast tissue, a condition that masks breast cancer in mammograms.
Brown gave cover to the right-leaning open enrollment and charter school movement, vetoing Democratic bills that would have put more hurdles on both. In one veto message, he said, "I know whereof I speak," referring to two charter schools he started as Oakland mayor.
He also struck down several Democrats' attempts at limiting the influence of large signature-gathering firms. But he signed a bill by Democrats allowing online voter registration.
Said Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution who wrote speeches for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson:
"He did a deft job of keeping both sides off balance."