SACRAMENTO — As the Democrats who control the Capitol congratulated themselves over this week's state budget deal, another dynamic emerged: support from across the political divide for Gov. Jerry Brown's thrifty ways.
Republicans who a few years ago had enough clout to hold up spending plans and block tax increases now rely on the governor, once the epitome of liberalism, to give them a voice in budget talks. They praised Brown as "conservative" and "restrained" — even if their support lacked a certain warmth — saying he at least attempted to put the brakes on the Legislature's more generous Democratic leadership.
"In many ways, he's the Republicans' vehicle for budget negotiations," said Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo), vice-chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee. "It's through his less liberal approach that Republicans are able to … participate in what's going on."
After cutting services deeply during years of red ink, lawmakers on Friday passed, on a party-line vote, a $96.3-billion budget that increases spending on schools, public universities and social services. It also sets up an expansion of healthcare for Californians to conform with the federal Affordable Care Act.
Brown has repeatedly emphasized how much spending he's curtailed. Last June, he vetoed some money for child care and college scholarships. This year, payments to some doctors who serve poor patients in the state's healthcare program will be reduced, despite a possible surplus, because the Brown administration says controlling healthcare spending is crucial to keeping the budget balanced in years ahead.
Just eight months ago, the GOP demonized Brown as a tax-and-spend liberal as he barnstormed the state for his successful $6-billion tax-hike initiative to stave off education cuts. This week, the governor green-lighted raises for unionized state employees and agreed to hundreds of millions of dollars in future spending on welfare, college tuition aid and dental care for the needy.
Blogger Jon Fleischman, a former executive director of the California Republican Party, is incensed by even a syllable of GOP praise for Brown. Such approval undercuts the party's ability to challenge Brown in the 2014 election or recapture enough legislative seats to end the Democrats' supermajorities in the state Senate and Assembly, he said.
"If the public sees Jerry Brown as the adult in the room, why do they need Republicans?" Fleischman said. "It's single-party rule right now…. Republicans need to claw back."
Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar was more pragmatic, given his party's weakened political position in Sacramento. Brown "is the most conservative of the three leading Democrats in Sacramento," Huff said.
The last two state budgets passed without a single Republican vote.
Weary of partisan gridlock, Californians in 2010 voted to allow state budgets to pass by a simple majority — ending the required two-thirds vote that for years gave the Republican minority veto power over spending. Last year, voters handed Democrats supermajorities in both legislative chambers, allowing new taxes to pass without GOP support.
"We've got to play the hand that's been dealt. Our stuff is routinely ignored," Huff said. "We find ourselves in agreement with the governor more often than not."
That doesn't make Brown a fiscal conservative, Huff quickly added. The governor failed to address the state's $180-billion pension and retiree healthcare liabilities in the new budget or set aside money for a rainy-day fund to cushion the state from economic ups and downs, he said. The budget does hold $1.1 billion in reserve, however.
During a news conference with Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) earlier this week, Brown hailed the budget deal as an example of "prudence over exuberance" that prizes schools and the needy.
"California is focusing, in this budget, on improving the healthcare of the people of our state and improving educational opportunity — that's the big take-away — while we're living within balance," Brown said.
Brown set the stage for the budget negotiations last May, when he described himself as a check on the potential excesses of Democratic lawmakers.
"Everybody wants to see more spending," he said. "That's what this place is; it's a big spending machine."
When the Legislature's top budget advisor projected that state revenue would be $3.2 billion higher than the administration's estimates, Brown dismissed it as too rosy. The governor prevailed: The budget relies on his revenue numbers.
Steve Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, described Brown as more cautious than conservative, noting that the budget deal gives the economy more time to recover before a lot of new spending kicks in.
"A conservative wouldn't spend the money if we had it," Levy said. "I think Brown will be perfectly willing to spend the money if the revenues continue to come in above expectations and the economic recovery continues to outpace the nation."
Jack Pitney, a former Republican Party strategist who teaches at Claremont McKenna College, said that after decades in public office, Brown has seen firsthand how fickle California's economy can be — especially in his first stint as governor in the volatile 1970s and 1980s and in his more recent job as mayor of Oakland, before he was elected attorney general.
"Brown has lived long enough to know the difference between Indian summer and spring. And from a fiscal standpoint, this is Indian summer," Pitney said. "Colder days lay ahead."
Times staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report.