Gov. Jerry Brown has come under criticism for dropping a Schwarzenegger-era lawsuit that sought to clarify whether California governors have the power to reduce state workers' wages temporarily to the federal minimum wage when the state budget isn't passed on time.
The argument is that Brown is caving to his key political backers, the public employee unions, who say governors can't reduce those wages. Maybe, but Brown's decision makes sense anyway, for political, legal and budgetary reasons.
Politically, the lawsuit represents a fight that Brown doesn't need right now -- as he tries to get public employees and other Democratic interest groups to go along with budget cuts they don't much like. Brown also needs their support for temporary tax increases he wants to have voters pass on the ballot.
Legally, Brown, by dropping the suit, removes the risk of a loss that could restrict his power. And in so doing, he keeps the option of reviving Schwarzenegger's bust-them-back-to-minimum-wage gambit in the future, if public employees don't give him what they want. That preserves his budgetary flexibility and power.
And as a budget matter, having the power doesn't produce savings in and of itself, since any cut to the minimum wage is temporary. State workers would be entitled to back pay once a particular budget standoff is over.
In other words, by playing politics and avoiding a possible legal defeat now, he creates leverage for himself in the current budget battle -- and in future battles.