Gov. Jerry Brown largely avoided publicly engaging in legislative matters unrelated to his own policy priorities during his first two years in office.
But with the state budget crisis and November ballot initiative to raise taxes behind him, Brown wielded an unusual degree of influence in the legislative session that ended early Friday, weighing in on the content of major bills and using Democratic majorities in the Legislature to get them passed.
Before lawmakers adjourned for the year, Brown negotiated amendments to legislation involving the California Environmental Quality Act, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and regulation of hydraulic fracturing. The hydraulic fracturing bill, which was opposed by many environmental groups, was so problematic for some Democratic lawmakers that Brown issued a public statement of support to give them cover.
The force of Brown’s involvement – especially in public statements during the end-of-session rush this week – was uncharacteristic for a governor who has traditionally refused to comment on pending action in the Legislature.
Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist, called Brown’s level of engagement “unusual for any governor,” most of whom “won’t indicate a position on a bill until it reaches them, unless it’s their own initiative, their own legislation.”
Brown has worked privately with lawmakers on bills in previous years, and his more assertive involvement this year was at least in part a function of circumstance. Brown has larger Democratic majorities in the Legislature than he has enjoyed before, and state financial troubles and a tax initiative no longer demand his attention.
“Things are tougher when you have a budget crisis, and last year he had the complication of the election pending, but this year there’s no general election, there’s not a budget crisis, and that gives him more flexibility,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
Brown, who is expected to run for re-election next year, also needed the Legislature’s support on a prison housing bill, a measure necessary to avoid early inmate releases under a federal court order to reduce the state’s prison population.
After Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, rebuffed Brown’s proposal to spend hundreds of millions of dollars shipping prisoners out of state and to local facilities, Brown and legislative leaders on Monday announced an accord. In exchange for Steinberg conditionally supporting Brown’s plan to spend $315 million this budget year relocating inmates, Brown agreed to sign legislation in which the state will first ask the court for more time to address the problem.
It was a victory for Brown, and Stutzman said, “It’s not completely surprising he would, in return, get completely involved in assuring enactment of issues that are endeared by the left.”
The most far-reaching legislation for Democrats and their labor union allies this year was passage of a bill to raise the minimum wage in California to $10 an hour by 2016. The legislation was not an unqualified success for labor, as it did not include an automatic cost-of-living escalator. But hours after the bill was amended to raise the hourly minimum to $10 more quickly than previously proposed, Brown issued a statement in support.
“He really felt people shouldn’t have to wait,” said Brown’s executive secretary, Nancy McFadden, adding that Brown’s engagement gave the effort “some steam.”
Another effect of the pronouncement was to chill any effort to lobby Brown on the issue.
“The big one that we thought was going to be out there was minimum wage,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable. Brown’s public statement, he said, “wiped that off the table.”
Brown’s full-throated support for the minimum wage bill may also afford him flexibility in his handling of less significant legislation backed by labor. They include measures to provide overtime pay for some domestic workers, expand workplace protections for victims of domestic violence and change the suspension and dismissal hearing process for school employees.
Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez both said Brown’s engagement with lawmakers this legislative session was no different than in previous years.
“This is the way it works,” Steinberg said.
In 2011, Steinberg offered a slightly different assessment. In July of that year – well before the end-of-session rush – Steinberg said Brown had “not really talked to him much” about legislation, adding, “I’m sort of, of the old school that, you know, the Legislature passes the bills and a governor decides whether to sign them or not.”
McFadden said Brown was actively engaged in legislation-making in previous years but “the same kind of reasons why the governor chose to come out publicly on some things this year were not necessarily present on bills in the past.”
When asked about his involvement at an event in San Francisco on Friday, Brown said, “When things get a bit stalled, I like to … provide a bit of catalyst.”
Brown’s handling of the legislation he has received so far this year has been relatively gentle. Since the first of the year, Brown has signed 316 bills and vetoed just five. Brown’s veto rate so far this year, 1.6 percent, is far lower than in the first two years of his term –14 percent in 2011 and 12 percent in 2012.
End-of-session bills can be more controversial, and it is unclear how Brown will act on any number of the hundreds of bills heading to his desk. Among those Brown will consider is legislation that would give local prosecutors discretion to decide whether a person charged with possessing a small amount of illegal drugs should be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor, as well as a controversial bill to extend the statute of limitations for some sex abuse victims, legislation opposed by the Catholic Church.
Brown has not said how he will act on those measures, nor has he weighed in on a spate of gun control bills.
On other legislation, Brown’s engagement with lawmakers has made passage all but certain. After vetoing similar legislation last year, Brown is expected to sign a bill that would prevent local law enforcement officials from detaining people based solely on immigration status unless they have been convicted of a felony or serious crime.
Brown is also expected to sign a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, after speaking against the idea while campaigning for governor in 2010. At the time, Brown called the idea a “little piecemeal” solution that “sends the wrong signal.”
He said Friday that “foot-dragging on the part of Congress and not creating immigration reform” changed his mind and that he hoped the bill would give Congress “a good push.”
Brown worked on amendments to the legislation with Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, and when the measure appeared to stall in the Legislature on Thursday, the Governor’s Office considered issuing a public statement to move it forward.
Brown didn’t issue the statement. But before the final vote on the bill, at about 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Alejo thanked supporters in a floor speech and said, “Also, we have a governor, a governor who has engaged in serious negotiations because he understands how important this bill is for California.”
Minutes later, Brown indicated he would sign it.