Four decades ago, during the early years of his first governorship, Jerry Brown described his “canoe theory” of politics.
By paddling a little on the left, and then on the right, Brown told a gathering of high school students in Sacramento, one can remain on a middle course.
Mostly, Brown has paddled his canoe on the left side of the political stream, albeit not so far left that he runs into the bank and capsizes.
However, when the politics of the moment or his own sensibilities dictate, he can quickly turn to the right, famously by fiercely opposing Proposition 13, the iconic 1978 property tax limit, and then, after it had passed, declaring himself a “born-again tax cutter” while seeking re-election.
During his second governorship, an older, wiser and clearly more cautious Brown has practiced his theory more diligently, as demonstrated last month in dealing with the hundreds of bills sent to his desk in August.
During his last year as governor, Brown signed 1,016 bills and vetoed 201 before Sunday’s deadline. Within the messages he attached to those he rejected, and some he signed, one finds many examples of the canoe theory.
The Legislature is very liberal, so most of those he signed are new expressions of that philosophy. But Brown often found fault with the liberal inclination to micro-manage human behavior, reminding legislators – as he had in the past – that not every problem requires a legislative solution.
He was leery of off-budget spending and adding new responsibilities to state agencies – very specifically the already troubled Department of Motor Vehicles. And while he signed some new gun control bills, he vetoed others as overreaching, such as one (Senate Bill 1177) limiting individual rifle and shotgun purchases to one every 30 days.
Brown vetoed bills that he saw as encouraging drug use, such as one (Assembly Bill 186) that would have allowed San Francisco to establish places of “supervised consumption” for addicts. He said “enabling illegal and destructive drug use will never work.”
Brown also rejected one of the year’s highest profile measures, which would have prohibited employers from requiring arbitration agreements and thus made it easier for workers to sue their bosses.
The measure, Assembly Bill 3080, was the only bill on the California Chamber of Commerce’s “job killer” list to reach Brown. He told lawmakers that “since this bill plainly violates federal law (authorizing arbitration agreements), I cannot sign this measure.”
Conversely, however, he signed another high-profile measure, Senate Bill 822, that would make “net neutrality” the law for California internet service providers, defying a Federal Communications Commission decision. The U.S. Department of Justice immediately filed suit to block the new California law.
Veering over to the left side of the stream, Brown signed several measures that ease up on criminal prosecutions, thus continuing a signal theme of his second governorship and undoing some of the lock-‘em-up measures he signed during his first.
One (Senate Bill 1437) repeals California’s “felony murder rule” that allows participants in crimes ending in death to be charged with murder even if they didn’t personally kill anyone.
As he signed the last measure of his 16 years as governor, Assembly Bill 237, which deals with “small dollar loans, Brown characteristically quoted about the sin of usury from the Bible’s depiction of the Jews’ flight from Egypt, then wrote, “And now onto the promised land – Colusa County.”
Then he tweeted, “16 years – and nearly 20,000 bills – later, the desk is clear. #Eureka.”