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8 takeaways from bills signed, vetoed by Brown

9:59 AM, Oct 22, 2013   |    comments
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Gov. Jerry Brown wrapped up final action Sunday afternoon on the scores of bills placed on his desk this year by the Legislature -- a series of decisions that, stepping back, paint a scene of a chief executive who clearly marches to his own drum beat.

And so here are eight big takeaways from Brown's 2013 decisions...

Vetoes Remain Rare: In an interview last year, the governor made clear his default position is to allow legislators to, in fact, legislate. "There's something called comity," Brown said in defending his general deference to the 120 members of the Legislature. 2013 was no exception: of the 805 bills that were sent to his desk this year, the governor vetoed only 96. Brown's rejection rate has been noticeably lower than that of his predecessors. Even so, the final weekend batch of decisions saw a rising number of vetoes -- perhaps pushing off the bad news for some legislative sponsors until the bitter end... or probably more likely, a sign that the governor was growing testy at the other things he could have been doing instead of reviewing so many proposed new laws.

Consistently Inconsistent? Brown has been known to invoke the famous quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson -- namely, that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."  And in a manner that both delights his fans and infuriates his critics, the governor again in 2013 proved that policy inconsistencies are seemingly a part of his governing style.

No doubt many will use his last minute decision to sign into law Senate Bill 7, legislation requiring California's charter cities to pay the local prevailing wage on most public works projects or risk losing state funds for construction projects, as an example.

The bill's critics specifically cited the notion that a mandate from Sacramento was the wrong way to go.  And deference to the level of government closest to citizens, the 'principle of subsidiarity,' has been one of Brown's favorite invocations.

No doubt other examples could be pointed out, but Brown clearly believes that there are exceptions worth making on certain issues. Or perhaps the rest of the Emerson quote, not as well known, is worth considering: "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall."

We Lead The Way, Except When We Don't: In a similar fashion, the governor weaved one way, then the other, in 2013 on his state's role in setting the national agenda.

"California's forging ahead," said Brown in a press release after signing nationally talked about bills on the issue of illegal immigration. The governor's jab at D.C. made national news. But on other topics -- from the huge and hot button issue of gun control to the smaller and not-so-known debate over alternative 'biosimiliar' pharmaceuticals -- the governor opted against California stepping into the national spotlight.

The Debate Unresolved: For sheer drama, nothing in the 2013 bill signing season tops the governor's decisions on those 17 gun and ammunition related bills that were announced just two days before his deadline for action. Brown was immediately vilified on both sides of the gun debate for signing some and vetoing others. It's unlikely he's seen the last of such bills, and gun rights advocates could still challenge some of the new laws in federal court.

He Shapes, He Signs: Governors may not have a vote upstairs in the Capitol, but they can wield enormous influence in how bills are written before ever being sent to their desk. Jerry Brown engaged in 2013 in a way not seen in a long time when it came to shaping the details of high profile bills during private negotiations -- a hike in the minimum wage, new rules on hydraulic fracturing oil drilling, drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants to name the most prominent examples.  

It shouldn't go unnoticed that those bills of which he had little control -- ones he couldn't get legislators or interest groups to modify -- were ones he vetoed.

It may be that in many cases the governor, now able to somewhat put the state's fiscal crisis behind him, saw the need... and an opportunity... to roll up his sleeves and put his mark on some big policies.  In others, most notably the recent bill that attempts to set a framework for an end to the long and costly fight with federal judges over prison conditions, such quiet consultation with legislators was a necessity.

Some Vetoes Concise, Others Full of Context: While the governor has a staff of advisers to help him sift through bills, Brown's unmistakable voice rings clear in so many of the veto messages he sends back to legislators.  The governor is known to personally write a much larger amount of his work than other chief executives, and 2013 offered some great examples.

Usually, the Brown veto style is simple and direct -- and because they are vetoes, it's often the governor sounding a bit exasperated.

Take the Oct. 3 veto of Assembly Bill 841, a bill to add new requirements to junk dealers who pay for scrap metal in an effort to combat the rise in metal theft.

The governor didn't take kindly (PDF) to the idea of another mandate:

"Existing law requires that a seller wait three days before receiving payment for metal materials, a written record of the transaction, the name, driver's license number, license plate number, thumbprint of the seller, and a photograph or video of the seller and the material being sold. How much more do you need?"

Then there was his final hours veto of a bill by Assembly Speaker John Pérez to give extra time for families of police and fire fighters to file workers comp claims after the officer's death.  Brown's message (PDF) -- we had this same discussion last year:

"At that time, I outlined the information needed to properly evaluate the implications of this bill.  I have not yet received that information."

But the governor also could show that he'd thought long and read deeply when it came to bills like Senate Bill 131 and its hotly debated call to allow extra time for some child molestation civil suits to be filed. The bill was motivated by a court battle over allegations inside the Catholic church, and Brown's veto (PDF) runs almost three pages in length -- a look at the long history of statutes of limitation dating back to ancient Rome, and ending with a simple statement that the bill's narrow focus was "unfair."

No Law Needed, I'll Fix It: A notable number of bills sent to Brown were returned with a veto... but also a promise to fix the problem through executive action. The governor is no doubt right that he has the power to intervene in a number of identified issues.  Still, it's worth pointing out that unlike a law, gubernatorial orders can easily be unilaterally undone by the next chief executive... or even by Brown himself, if he later changes his mind.

Still Tough to Get A Read on the Guv: If the world of politics and policy were really one large cafeteria-style meal, Jerry Brown would seem right at home. The governor picks and chooses his entrees/issues based on his own personal philosophy more than that of any party or poll.  Sure, he still picks most of his cafeteria dishes from a particular side of the spectrum -- he's decidedly a Democrat -- but his decisions to sign or veto bills are a lot harder to predict than many of his predecessors.

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.


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