SACRAMENTO -- In what was essentially an audition for the fall campaign to raise taxes, Gov. Jerry Brown and Democrats in the Legislature on Friday finished a grueling eight months of painful governing.
The question is: Was it enough to cut through the grating noises of dysfunction emanating from the Capitol this summer?
At Brown's behest, lawmakers slashed away at welfare-to-work programs, eliminated a popular health program for children, sliced funding for community colleges and universities, and produced pension reform that will ultimately make it less attractive to work for state government.
"What they tried to do was show voters 'We've done our part to cut, and now it's up to you to help us with the rest,'" said Larry Gerston, a political-science professor at San Jose State University. "If you buy that, it was reasonably executed. It was a reasonably substantive year because there were so many challenges."
On Friday, the last day of the legislative session, lawmakers pushed through, in strong bipartisan fashion and at Brown's urging, a bill that makes fixes to the state's workers' compensation system that both labor and business cheered.
To be sure, not everything Brown did was aimed at winning voter love in November. He also embarked on controversial projects such as high-speed rail and a new plan to ship water south. Voters have turned on the bullet-train project, the costs of which have skyrocketed since voters approved it in 2006. And, of course, water politics is perpetually treacherous.
Aside from the stubborn economic challenges that forced Brown to close a $15.7 billion deficit, the governor and his fellow Democrats faced nagging questions over how much they'd truly cleaned things up.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, had to defend pay raises he gave to staffers, admitting afterward that he should have paid closer attention to the optics of handing out salary boosts in the midst of massive cutbacks.
And then came the one-two gut-punch of revelations of a secret Parks and Recreation Department vacation buyout scheme and the discovery of $54 million in "hidden assets." The director, Ruth Coleman, resigned and her chief deputy, Michael Harris, was fired; three others were disciplined.
The scandals put Brown on the defensive and threatened to undermine what momentum he'd gained through the big and bold actions, as well as the smaller, more symbolic moves such as auctioning off state automobiles and revoking thousands of state workers' cellphones.
On the days in August that Brown announced his plan to construct two massive water pipelines and when he kicked off his tax-hike campaign for Proposition 30, Brown was fending off questions over the scandals, displaying some irritation at having to discuss them.
Brown insisted that voters will make their decision on the simple merits of Proposition 30, rather than taking all their feelings about state government into the voting booth.
"You can bring up all the foibles, and you know what? There's a lot more," Brown told reporters. "You know, we've got a lot of flawed people around here. I've got some flaws myself, and you can probably dig 'em out. And, you know, a lot of people don't like things about me or what I say. And I can tell you things about the Legislature, I could tell you things even about the L.A. Times and the AP and the Sacramento Bee and the media empire. Lots of flaws, I mean, you know they're losing money all the time. But having said all that, are you for 30 or are you against 30? I think it's a pretty self-contained, zero-sum game."
Still, Brown pursued pension reform zealously as if its success was tied to his chances at the polls this fall.
His passion came despite last spring's Field Poll showing that a deal on pension reform was unlikely to have an impact on whether voters supported Brown's tax-hike measure, which would raise the sales tax by a quarter-cent and boost income taxes on couples who make more than $500,000 a year. According to the poll, those who supported a tax hike would vote for it without regard to a pension deal, and those who opposed it would vote against a tax hike whether or not pension rollbacks were approved.
Critics of the pension reform bill approved Friday said its shortcomings would come back and bite Brown, but likely voters surveyed by Field showed their highest support for two elements that were part of the pension legislation: capping pensionable salaries and raising the retirement age (though that will be the case only for new employees).
Still, critics said that Brown wouldn't have gone through all the gyrations of producing an austerity budget, pension rollbacks and other belt-tightening measures if he didn't think voters needed some reassurances over how California's government is run.
Voters deciding on taxes invariably take their dissatisfied view toward government into the booth, said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution fellow who was former Gov. Pete Wilson's chief speechwriter.
"And I'd be hard-pressed to see any series of bills that changed the public's attitude toward government," Whalen said. "And whatever positives you got from any legislative successes quickly get erased by something as silly as $54 million under the sofa cushion. That little episode is the perfect metaphor for the frustration with Sacramento."
But Gil Duran, Brown's spokesman, said voters will understand that the governor inherited a government in disarray -- from massive debts and deficits to the Parks and Recreation debacle.
"Here we are getting pension reform when in past years, we'd still be fighting over a budget until October," Duran said. "A lot of what the governor is doing is cleaning up messes that were built up over a decade. We responded immediately (to the parks scandal), heads rolled, we instigated an audit and cleaned up the mess."