It is easily the most familiar (and perhaps overused) shorthand for Governor Jerry Brown’s philosophy of governance and politics. And yet Brown’s self-described “canoe theory” seems to have stood the test of time, with his paddling skills put to the test this past week navigating Capitol waters thick with hundreds of pieces of legislation.

For now, the paddle has been laid down, as has the signing pen, giving the public the chance to gauge whether Brown’s path was straight or wildly off course.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty

The Guv’s analogy — that in politics, like in canoeing, one must paddle a little on the left and a little on the right to successfully go in a straight line — is one he coined early in his second term as chief executive (writer Richard Reeves noted in 1979 that the Guv made the comment to a YMCA group). The “canoe theory” has followed Jerry Brown through the years — used derisively at times (as Reeves did in 1979), while in other instances cited as evidence of his finely tuned political sensibilities.

With the final decisions announced late Sunday night on scores of bills, Brown’s “canoe theory” seems especially useful. The governor finds himself in a statehouse where, more than his previous two terms, powerful political interests are pushing hard on his paddle. Very few of these groups see any value in a course other than the one they’ve plotted.

In several cases on the 2011 bill watch, Governor Brown paddled his way left… then right… on issues that, at a macro level, don’t appear all that different. One example: his decision to sign into law a ban on teens under the age of 18 from using tanning beds and his decision to allow some girls in the same age range to get vaccinations for the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) without parental consent. On one hand, the two laws suggest contradictory standards for teens to control (or not) their own lives; on the other, Brown’s logic could be seen as consistent if it’s believed the state must step in to help protect the health of some minors. But then that is tough to square with the bill Brown squashed last month requiring helmets for snow skiing kids — with the governor notably saying in that veto message, “I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state.”

Considerable attention has been paid to the fate of bills either loved or hated by organized labor, and rightly so. As the strongest supporter of the Capitol’s majority party, the wishes of public employee unions usually carry weight. Brown clearly paddled these last few days both toward… and then away… from his union supporters. Even so, whether those were strokes of equal strength remains up for debate. The governor vetoed AB 101, a bill that would have allowed in-home child care workers to join the union ranks. His veto message (PDF) blamed it on the state’s budget woes — a nod to the reality that state funding of child care programs is easier to cut if it’s not under the umbrella of government services protected by labor’s political muscle.

But Brown elsewhere steered towards his union allies, ostensibly in the name of good government, by signing the politically explosive SB 202. The bill, easily a candidate for Most Notable Late Night Bloomer in the Legislature’s final hours, states that initiative measures (both those in circulation now and those forever more) can only appear on November general election ballots. In his signing message (PDF), the governor praised the bill’s effort to get initiatives in front of the most voters possible, as well as the bill’s two year delay of a legislative ballot measure buffing up the state’s budget reserve fund (Brown and others said the state can’t afford that kind of cash stash right now, while one conservative columnist called the Guv to task for no longer trusting the voters to make the right call). But political watchers know that SB 202’s most short-term practical effect would be the delay of a likely June 2012 initiative to limit union political spending — a delay that would place the measure onto the November 2012 ballot, where union-friendly Democrats will turn out in large numbers to vote for President Barack Obama.

(Republicans know this too, which is why a top GOP attorney filed a proposed referendum to overturn SB 202 within hours of Brown’s signing of the bill.)

The deep divisions between the labor and business communities were seen in several of Governor Brown’s final paddle strokes on Sunday night. He paddled towards big business in vetoing SB 469, requiring economic impact reports before big box stores can be built (PDF), and in his veto (PDF) of SB 931, which would have established new rules for companies that pay workers with “payroll debit cards.” Both were big blows to unions. However, Brown then paddled towards the unions with the signing of AB 22, which bans employers in most circumstances from running credit reports on job applicants, and by signing AB 183, which bans self-serve kiosks in supermarkets from being used to buy alcohol. Both were strongly opposed by the business community.

More careful paddling through murky waters can be found in Brown’s handling of racial politics on college campuses. He signed the much-talked about plan to give undocumented students full access to financial aid, but vetoed a Democratic plan to allow using race, ethnicity, or gender in admissions. On the latter bill, Brown said (PDF) that he supports the idea but that the courts need to resolve the matter.

Illegal immigration was also in the waters Brown paddled through on two bills related to the seizure of vehicles at police checkpoints — seizures sometimes based on the fact that the driver is unlicensed, which often means an undocumented immigrant. The governor signed into law AB 353, which bans checkpoints set up for vehicle inspections. But a bill that went further — AB 1389, which would have tightened the rules even for sobriety checkpoints — was vetoed (PDF), although backers of the bill said it would have addressed pretty much the same issue(s) as AB 353. “This bill is far too restrictive on local law enforcement,” said Brown in his veto message of AB 1389.

Elsewhere, Brown paddled his way between sticky worker rights issues, signing into law a strengthening of the state’s employment leave for the birth of a child, but vetoing a proposal requiring employers to give a leave of absence for the death of a worker’s family member (PDF).

Even when handing a victory to government reform groups with the signing of a law requiring a three year state budget plan, the Guv smacked the same groups for their push to enshrine “performance based budgeting” into state law, writing in his veto message (PDF):

The politically expedient course would be to sign this bill and bask in the pretense that it is some panacea for our budget woes. But the hard truth is that this bill will mandate thousands of hours of work — at the cost of tens of millions of dollars — with little chance of actual improvement.

When the governor did paddle one way more decidedly than the other, it was toward the Democratic side of the lake. Brown signed the internationally buzzed about AB 376, banning most possessions and sale of shark fins. And on Sunday, he signed SB 946, a bill mandating health insurers cover behavioral treatment for autism.

In all, Governor Brown signed many more bills than he vetoed in 2011, even though he’d promised to reject “a lot of bills” by the time the dust settled. As of late Sunday night, the governor appeared* to have signed 464 bills, vetoed 88, and allowed at least one to become law without his signature; that’s a veto rate of about 16%. By comparison, a look at press releases from 2010 show former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed about 27% of that year’s legislation.

Though his veto rate may have been lower than that of his predecessor (who was, after all, a GOP governor dealing with largely Democratic bills), Brown nonetheless made no secret of his frustration that so many proposals were sent to him on topics that he sees as less than mission critical. “Not every human problem needs a law,” the governor groused to reporters in mid September.

But every ratified legislative proposal does ultimately need an up-or-down vote from the guy in charge, a paddle stroke one way or the other. And Jerry Brown seemed to be showing in these last few weeks of decisions that, now 40+ years into his political odyssey, he still wants to position his canoe somewhere between two river banks filled with warring politicos.

*The governor’s office had not responded to a request for final bill tallies at the time of this posting. I’ll update the numbers should they become confirmed. –JM

Analysis: Final Decision by Guv on Scores of Bills Saw Brown Paddling Both Left and Right 10 October,2011John Myers


John Myers

John Myers is Senior Editor of KQED’s new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he was KQED’s longest serving  statehouse bureau chief and recently was political editor for Sacramento’s ABC affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John was moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and  was named by The Washington Post to two “Best Of” lists: the 2015 list of top state politics reporters and 2014’s list of America’s most influential statehouse reporters.

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