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Wistful Speaker Looks Back, Defends Record

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) takes the oath of office at the start of the current legislative session in December 2012.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

He was sworn in as California Assembly Speaker when the state faced a $60 billion budget deficit.  Four years later, Los Angeles Democrat John Pérez points to a surplus and wishes he didn’t have to leave.

Looking back over his tenure as speaker in an interview with Capital Public Radio, Pérez takes credit for helping turn the state budget around.

“Some say that the banks were too big to fail. California wasn’t too big to fail. And we had to take very tough decisions to make sure that California didn’t fail,” he says.

And the speaker says his biggest regret is that term limits are forcing him from office just as the economy has turned the corner.

On this year’s budget, Pérez criticized progressive groups’ demands of an extra $5 billion for education, health and social services programs, calling that idea unrealistic and risky.  He’s pressing for a “rainy day fund” constitutional amendment instead.

“It is not responsible to spend one-time money on ongoing expenditures. That’s what got us into the problem in the first place,” he says. 

The speaker expressed support for Governor Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail project. And he put the chances of the legislature sending a new water bond to voters this year at above 80 percent.

“The single most irresponsible act that a legislator could do would be refusing to take part in the process of creating a water bond that we could put on the ballot and earn the support of the voters,” he says.

Asked if anyone at the Capitol was doing that right now, Pérez replied: “I think there are several people who have refused to engage in the conversation” but would not name names. 

Finally, the speaker pushed back at the common criticism that his leadership style is heavy-handed – calling it an inaccurate assessment.

“I expect that everybody do their job, that people show up, that people engage in a deliberative process – and I do demand that of them. And so if it’s wrong to expect the members of the legislature to legislate and to deliberate, then count me as guilty.”

Pérez hands the speaker’s gavel to Majority Leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) one week from Monday – just as budget talks kick into full gear.

Clips from CapRadio's conversation with Perez:

Other Noteworthy Quotes:

Is Gov. Jerry Brown more centrist in his latest stint in office compared to his first stretch in the 1970s and 80s?

"I don’t know that he’s more centrist. I think he’s more pragmatic in his approach, and pragmatism matters a lot."

What are the odds of the legislature placing a new water bond proposal on the November ballot?

"I'd put the odds in the 80-plus percent area."

Asked to name names of lawmakers who aren't participating in water bond talks, which he described as "the single most irresponsible act that a legislator could do:"

"Why don’t you ask around the Capitol and folks who don’t think we should have a bond this year, there’s probably a high correlation between those folks and the folks who aren’t participating."

On his continued support for Gov. Brown's high-speed rail project, despite even some of Brown's fellow Democrats voicing changes in heart:

"I think some people have jumped on a bandwagon just because something's not as popular today as it was several years ago.  Popularity and the quality of policy are two separate concerns."

On whether the media have given him a fair shake:

"I have no complaints.  I'm somebody who's been focused on doing a job."

On the perception that he's a heavy-handed leader:

"Other legislative leaders, while I've been in office, have stripped committee chairmanships and have never been called on it.  I've never stripped one and been accused of it."

Listen to the full interview here:



Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio 

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