Gov. Jerry Brown met with lawmakers Tuesday to start selling his budget plan, but for most of the Bay Area's all-Democrat delegation, he might've been preaching to the choir.
Interviewed before and after their caucuses' meetings with the governor, local legislators praised what they described as Brown's plain-spoken pragmatism and engagement. Even some of the most liberal ones, who've railed for new, additional taxes in order to reduce further cuts, seemed inclined to play ball in Brown's court.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, before meeting with Brown on Tuesday, said that he'd like to know why California will remain the only oil-producing state without an oil severance tax, and that Brown's plan to phase out local redevelopment agencies "has some merit, but I don't think I'm ready to buy the whole enchilada right now."
Yet while "the devil is in the details," Ammiano said, "the tone is better." Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom Ammiano famously didn't get along, made a lot of his budget calls "by fiat" while "Brown is more of a tactician, a little bit more old school," he said. "There's room to work, and even if we have to swallow some bad medicine, it's not the despair we had under Arnold."
"Even Gray Davis was a cold fish, he never met with anybody," Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, said after his caucus met with Brown, adding that while nobody's pretending this budget isn't painful, many seem to be saying, "I don't want to hear it, but at least he's talking to me like an adult."
"It's refreshing to have a governor who's going to be brutally honest with the people of California -- I think they deserve nothing less," said Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo. "He's answering the questions himself, he understands the budget, and I don't know how you solve a problem unless you're willing to admit how big the problem is."
State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, agreed he's "very thankful for an honest, grown-up approach and I think Californians are ready for that."
"There is an inevitability to it," he said, noting that while many Democrats fought against cuts proposed or enacted by the previous administration, the state has come to a place where it has nowhere else to turn. "The reality is that we can't budget and spend money that we don't have."
"Rather than pretending we can get by, it's better to face the problems head on," he said, adding that while Schwarzenegger was "a showman," Brown is not. "He's certainly entertaining in many ways, but they're very different people coming from different life experiences. Timing is everything in politics, as it is in life, and Jerry Brown is not the person he was 35 years ago."
State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, called it "the first honest and direct effort to confront California's situation that I've heard since I've been in the Legislature, so there's an immense feeling of relief that the denial is over -- that's when you begin to return to health.''
She promised a close analysis of the governor's plan to "see if there are some better ways to accomplish the same goals,'' but said Brown generally "has set out a framework that can set the stage for economic renewal and it does not eliminate any programs like the Schwarzenegger budgets did, so social rebuilding is possible."
Hancock in the past has sought to lift property tax-freezing Proposition 13's protection from commercial properties as well as to raise income taxes for the state's richest residents, but said that now isn't the time for either: "There are many things that need to be done and this is a first step absolutely in the right direction -- all it involves is maintaining our present taxes so no business and no individual in California will pay any more than they are now. It should be noncontroversial."
Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said she's not satisfied to see K-12 education remain at current levels if that leaves California ranking near the nation's bottom in per-pupil spending, but Brown's budget seems to put pragmatism above anyone's idealism. "He didn't throw out a lot of rhetoric. He's just pretty much saying, 'This is our circumstance, these are our choices, and I'm presenting it to you.' "
Now it's a matter of convincing Californians that this ugliness is our budgetary and economic reality, she said: "We've met the enemy and it is us: Californians want stuff but don't necessarily fully realize what it costs. That's what this engagement has got to be."
"Some people are very, very aware and understand the gravity of the situation and have been preparing for it for some time and there may be others that don't have as much information, and we have to do everything we can to help people understand where we are," said state Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro.
Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, said Brown's plan to realign many state services and funds to local control could play a big part in convincing Californians who've opposed past tax hikes to vote in 2011 to extend tax rates already in effect for another five years; local control and accountability are very popular, she said. "I think this is what they're going to be faced with in June and I think it's a different scenario than in the past."
Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said his constituents always have favored a balance of spending cuts and revenue increases to solve the state's budget woes, and will rush to support this plan if they know what the alternatives will mean to their schools, social services, public safety and other sectors.
"It is 'shock and awe,' that is exactly what it is. You have to see the real world, and numbers don't tell that story," he said. "The dollars don't indicate how many teachers and classrooms and textbooks that would be and I don't think were willing to go there as a state. I'll be out there trying to make the case of how important this is."