By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - After years of fiscal and policy restraint by California Governor Jerry Brown, a new crop of legislative leaders are trying to push the state further to the left, with mixed results.
It is a policy tussle that could ultimately benefit both sides, as Brown, criticized as too liberal during a 1970s-era stint as governor, burnishes his image as a moderate and legislative leaders play to their progressive base.
In recent weeks, progressive Democrats have won an expansion of subsidized healthcare for low-income undocumented immigrant children, eliminated religious exemptions for school vaccinations, and persuaded Brown to spend nearly a billion dollars more on higher education and social programs than he had intended.
But they have also had to back down from efforts to restore services to the disabled, legalize assisted suicide, and, perhaps most significantly, get Brown to more broadly expand state spending.
"It hasn't necessarily been easy," said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego. "We need to be pragmatic about what we are able to do."
Democrats dominate electoral politics in California, holding large majorities in both houses of the legislature and all statewide offices.
But the party's progressive wing has been frustrated in recent years as economic and political trends, along with Brown's strong will and veto pen, pushed the state more toward the center.
The 2008 recession and ensuing economic meltdown hit California hard, and when Brown took office in 2011 the state faced an 18-month budget gap of $25 billion. He righted state finances through a combination of new temporary taxes and fiscal caution, including support for a ballot initiative enshrining a rainy-day fund in the state constitution.
Additionally, a new method for selecting candidates led to the election of moderate Democrats in some relatively conservative Assembly districts, leading that body farther to the right.
By late last year, frustration among many in the party's liberal base had begun to boil over.
Activists demanded that the state restore funding cut during the recession for the disabled, the mentally ill and the poor. Gun control advocates railed at Brown's 2013 and 2014 vetoes of several firearms bills.
Frustrated, then-Senate leader Darrell Steinberg pushed for prison reform, mental health services, universal preschool and gun control, winning modest battles as Brown continued to hold the line on spending.
The governor similarly demanded restraint in spending this year, saying state finances were cyclical and could soon change for the worse. But last month, lawmakers defied him, passing a budget that called for $2 billion more in spending than Brown supported.
They soon backed down, but Brown did shift some spending priorities, directing about $780 million more than originally planned to higher education, childcare and other programs championed by Atkins and Senate leader Kevin de Leon, who succeeded Steinberg last October.
Buoyed in part by the state's resurgent economy, Atkins and de Leon also lobbied Brown for a new tax credit for low-income Californians, which the governor included in his mid-year budget proposal in May.
"The issue is not what set of leaders are more progressive than the other," said de Leon, who represents Los Angeles. "Circumstances like having the budget in the black provide the opportunity for leadership to be more aggressive in support of these really critical issues to support the human condition."
Among causes he has championed this year are fighting climate change and expanding rights for unauthorized immigrants, both issues also supported by Brown.
Meanwhile, Atkins has successfully pushed for affordable housing programs, and lobbied the governor on their importance.
The price of some of that progress has been willingness to go along with Brown's more conservative views on other matters. Issues like a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing or tighter gun control laws aren't on the table this year, said Pete Woiwode, an organizer with the anti-poverty coalition California Partnership.
"The governor is toeing a more conservative line than the people of California elected him to do, and the legislature has not found their footing to trust what California really needs and put an agenda on his desk," Woiwode said.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst with the University of Southern California, said that winning a few and losing a few works well for legislative leaders and the governor, all of whom are playing to their political bases.
"They can say, 'We tried, but gee that governor is tough,'" Bebitch Jeffe said, referring to Atkins and de Leon. "And Jerry Brown comes out looking like the skinflint he loves to look like."
"It's a win-win situation for both."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Andrew Hay)