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Jerry Brown on Triumph and Tiptoes

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"You don't normally end on a triumphant note. You enter in triumph, and you leave on tiptoe," quoth Jerry Brown at a Tuesday press conference to sum up the first year of his second stint as California governor.

For one hour, Brown was highly quotable: "I'm a reformed reformer," he offered. And: "Just because a bill is useless doesn't mean I should veto it."

"The main story is the budget," said Brown, who gave himself a passing grade. He had promised voters that despite a $25 billion shortfall, he would balance the state budget without gimmicks. He came close to succeeding; he cut the shortfall in half. It's hard to imagine the Democratic Legislature passing billions in spending cuts if Republican Meg Whitman had been elected.

Yes, Republican state Sen. Bob Dutton told me after the presser, Brown deserved credit for the cuts, but "he was forced to do it. He didn't have any choice."

Please note that when Brown went after nonessential spending -- for example, for redevelopment -- GOP support was weak.

Brown also promised "no new taxes without voter approval." The rub: The Democrat did not tell voters until after he was elected that he wanted to extend temporary tax increases.

That put heat on GOP lawmakers, whom Brown needed to put a tax measure on the ballot. Because Californians had rejected the same tax increase by a 2-1 margin in 2009, Brown could not scare up the handful of Republican votes he needed. (GOP leaders blame Brown's refusal to put pension reform and a spending cap on the same ballot.) The tactic bought Sacramento time.

Now Brown says he wants to put a new "temporary" measure to increase taxes by $7 billion annually on the November ballot. He says he believes that voters will pass it. So whether they do or not, Brown has bought himself more time.

In Sacramento, this is winning. Once again, Californians get more government than they want to pay for. Cross your fingers and pray for the recovery.

When I asked Brown what he could do to facilitate the creation of private-sector jobs, he noted his focus on jobs in renewable energy -- aided by the state mandate that 33 percent of energy/electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. And he mentioned stem cells.

California has distinct "values," Brown explained; it's not Texas or South Dakota. He's right. In California, voters want a renewable-energy mandate that drives up energy costs -- even in the face of double-digit unemployment.

Chapman University fellow Joel Kotkin warned that California is turning into a state with lots of rich people and lots of poor people but a disappearing middle. But voters don't connect the dots between energy policy and unemployment.

GOP consultant Mitch Zak gave Brown two grades: an A "for the politics" (Brown has a higher approval rating than you would expect) and an "incomplete" on policy.

Perhaps Californians understand that Brown is doing the best job he can in a state that has made itself barely governable.

Or maybe voters are just good at blaming the GOP -- the minority party -- for Sacramento's dysfunction. As his governorship noted, "if you have certain adversaries who screw up and look stupid, it's very helpful."

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