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Jerry Brown Eases Off the Veto Pedal

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Opinion: Brown Eases Off the Veto Pedal

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California Gov. Jerry Brown

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Whatever their disagreements, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and members of the state legislature seem to be getting along better now than governors with legislators in recent years.

Over the recent two-year session, Brown vetoed 13.1 percent of the bills that crossed his desk. While that might seem like a lot, it's slightly less than half of the veto rate of immediate predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger (2003-2011), who set a record for saying no to 26.1 percent of the bills awaiting his signature.

While Schwarzenegger holds the record for rejecting legislation, he was in pretty lofty company. During his term of office, Gov. Gray Davis (1999-2003) vetoed 17.6 percent, slightly higher than the 16.6 percent spurned by Pete Wilson (1991-1999), which was a notch more than the 15.1 percent turned down by Republican George Deukmejian (1983-1991). All these represented considerably more opposition than Brown's first go-around as governor 35 years ago.

In his first two terms, Jerry Brown vetoed only 6.3 percent of the bills before him. Still, on 13 occasions, the Democratic-controlled legislature secured the required two-thirds majority in each chamber to overturn the governor's vetoes -- the last time any California governor has seen a veto reversed.

All this raises the question: What accounts for the relatively smooth relationship between Brown now, compared with the contentious relationship between the two branches more than three decades ago, since Democrats have been in control of the legislature both times?

Probably maturity. The Jerry Brown of the 1970s and early 1980s was a far cry from the Jerry Brown of today.

Young and restless (to take a page from the old soap opera by the same name), he had little interest in cultivating his legislative colleagues. During this period, Brown sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency twice (1976 and 1980), and later was the party's nominee for the U.S. Senate (1982), only to lose to Republican Pete Wilson. Many of his legislative counterparts didn't sense much interest from Brown in their issues or concerns. Judging from the governor's attraction to other offices, they may have been right.

Fast forward three-plus decades, and the story is entirely different. Brown has said more than once that this is his last political office hurrah. At 72, he's not about to go anywhere except do the best he can with the cards he's dealt, legislatively or otherwise. He's put all his energy into his job as governor and consulted with legislative leaders -- particularly fellow Democrats -- on a regular basis. The result: a reduced veto rate from previous governors and a legislature unwilling to challenge Brown's decisions contrary to their wishes.

True, the state remains in the throes of a weak economy and budget process that still leaves legislators and the governor forced to make hard decisions, many of which are not popular with anyone. But if nothing else, the two branches are working together better than any time in recent memory. And for that, we can be a little grateful. 

Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst for NBC Bay Area.

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