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Lou Cannon: In Tale of Two Governors, Cuomo Soars While Brown Struggles

Two Democrats find themselves on starkly different paths in battle of budgets, popularity

Govs. Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York have much in common. Both are Democrats and sons of famous Democratic governors. Defying a national Republican trend in 2010, both were elected governors of their respective states by decisive margins. Both inherited hefty budget deficits that were byproducts of the Great Recession and past overspending. And both promised to seek political middle ground and deal realistically with the fiscal problems of their states.

Nearly five months later, the fortunes of Brown and Cuomo have diverged in ways that reflect their differing personalities and the dissimilar political processes of the states they govern. Brown, the son of Gov. Pat Brown, is on his second tour of duty as California’s chief executive. In 1975, when he began eight years as governor, Jerry Brown was at 36 the youngest Californian ever to hold the office. He’s now the state’s oldest governor and no longer the eccentric lone wolf once known as “Governor Moonbeam.” Although he still marches to his own drum roll, Brown at 73 has become more low-key and practical in trying to address California’s seemingly perpetual budget shortfall with a blend of spending cuts and tax extensions. But he lacks Republican legislative support for what he had hoped would become a bipartisan plan.

Andrew Cuomo
Andrew Cuomo

Cuomo, 53, has fared better with the New York Legislature, in which Republicans control the state Senate and the Democrats the Asssembly. Like his father Mario, who served as governor for a dozen years, Andrew Cuomo is liberal on social issues.

In keeping with the temper of the times, however, Cuomo has pursued a conservative fiscal course, notably in declining to extend the so-called “millionaire’s tax,” actually a three-year surcharge on incomes over $200,000 that will expire at the end of 2011. Instead, Cuomo negotiated bluntly with hospital workers and health-care interests to accept spending caps and $2.8 billion of cuts in Medicaid in a style an insider calls “very New York.” With bipartisan support Cuomo then presented a $132.5 billion budget that wiped out a $10 billion deficit and won legislative approval before the April 1 deadline, an unusual event in New York State.

“He said what he was going to do and pretty much did it,” said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group. “Since he’d spelled out his intentions and won by a large margin, he had a compelling mandate for his budget.”

A recent Marist College Poll found that 54 percent of voters believe Cuomo is doing a good or excellent job, 31 percent a fair job and only 6 percent a poor job.

“Cuomo has governed from the center,” said political scientist Lee Miringoff, director of the poll. “People approve of his conservative fiscal policies and trust him much more than they do the Legislature.”

In California, meanwhile, Brown is trying to climb a steeper mountain. The Golden State has been plagued for years by recurrent budget shortfalls and an underlying structural deficit. Previous governors and a succession of Democratic-controlled legislatures have kicked the can down the road with a variety of gimmicks that have saddled California with debts and a dismal bond rating. Brown resolved to change the political culture.

“Brown shocked Sacramento out of its state of denial and brought a semblance of reality into the budget discussions,” said Bill Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable.

But these discussions fell short. When he took office, Brown faced the prospect of an 18-month budget shortfall of $26.6 billion. He won legislative approval of more than $11 billion in budget reductions, trimming health care for the elderly, public education and other programs. But the Democratic majority in the Legislature balked at further cuts, and the Republican minority has refused to extend surcharges on the sales tax (1 percent), vehicle registrations (0.5 percent) and state income tax (0.25 percent), all of which expire July 1. Nor would the Republicans permit Brown to take his tax plan to the voters, as he promised to do during the campaign. Brown made his case to Republican legislators in one-on-one meetings but failed to persuade any of them, giving rise to the criticism that he should instead have tried to broker a deal with legislative leaders as past governors have done.

Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown

Whatever the merit of Brown’s tactics, he is handicapped by a creaking and complicated political system that resorts more to voter referendums and initiatives than any other state. These ballot measures have contributed to the state’s fiscal chaos. Over the years California voters have written into law or the state Constitution a multiplicity of mandates that direct how the budget should be apportioned. Advocates of majority rule especially fault Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot measure that requires two-thirds approval of voters or legislators for any tax increase although the initiative did not itself gain a two-thirds majority. The two-thirds rule has empowered otherwise impotent Republicans, who lost every statewide race in 2010 but are still able to call the tune on tax issues in the Legislature.

In New York, which has no initiative process, Republicans are resurgent, and their rise has paradoxically benefited Cuomo. In the 2010 midterms, Republicans won control of the Senate by a one-vote margin while gaining nine seats and reducing the Democratic majority in the Assembly. The new Republican leadership in the Senate saw in Cuomo’s relatively austere budget an opportunity to demonstrate that it can be constructive.

Although most Democrats also voted for the budget, Cuomo’s refusal to extend the tax surcharge on high incomes alienated elements of his party’s left wing. Supporting Cuomo’s liberal critics, The New York Times editorially declared that his budget “will bring unnecessary pain to the less fortunate of the state, while allowing some of the richest residents to escape their share of the burden.” Similarly, liberals decry Cuomo’s campaign promise to cap the property tax as unfair to poorer districts. The proposal was dropped from the budget and, standing on its own, faces a difficult course in the Assembly. But liberal opposition has reinforced Cuomo’s centrist standing; in the Marist Poll more than half those surveyed described him as a moderate and nearly a fifth called him a conservative.

In California, meanwhile, economic good news has been of little benefit to Brown. On May 23, the state Department of Finance reported that revenues had surged $6.6 billion, primarily because of a rise in the incomes of the wealthy, who pay much higher taxes than other Californians. This revenue surge cut the projected deficit to about $9 billion and enabled Brown, in a revised budget submitted to the Legislature, to allocate an extra $3 billion to California schools. He also tinkered with his tax plan, which in its new version would allow the income tax surcharge to lapse on July 1 and be reinstated in 2012. Instead of taking the plan to the voters, Brown is now asking that the Legislature pass the budget and then have voters ratify it.

Unfortunately for Brown, however, the revenue surge has encouraged Republicans in their view that tax extensions are unnecessary. Brown’s hole card in the budget debate had been a not-so-veiled threat to make additional cuts in public education, unpalatable to Republicans and Democrats alike, if the Republican legislators did not go along with his tax plan. Now that threat seems empty. Even before the full extent of the revenue surge became known, the Assembly Republican caucus unveiled a rival budget plan with no tax extensions. It would additionally cut services for the poor, already hard hit by Brown’s budget, and reduce the state work force but make no further dents in education spending.

In presenting his revised budget, Brown did not explain how he expects to obtain the Republican legislative support he needs — votes he was unable to get when the deficit projection was direr. Legislatures have rarely met the June 15 budget deadline in the recent past, instead resorting to state IOUs and other demonstrations of dysfunction that have diminished the popularity of a succession of California governors. Brown, who had a 40 percent favorability rating in an early May poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, could still win approval of a budget that overall is more straightforward than the spending plans of recent predecessors. But his window of opportunity narrows with each passing day.

— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.

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