Editor’s note: Jerry Brown and Dan Walters arrived in Sacramento at the same time in 1975. Brown was a new governor and Walters was a reporter at the Sacramento Union. More than any other journalist, Walters has followed Brown’s career ever since. This four-part series is his inside look at the politician he has watched so closely for so long.
Last January, as Jerry Brown was unveiling his 16th and final state budget, a reporter asked him about his legacy as the state’s longest-serving governor.
“Can you tell me the legacy of Goodwin Knight? Or Gov. (Frank) Merriam. Or (George) Deukmejian?” Brown replied rather testily. “Governors don’t have legacies. That’s my No. 1 proposition.”
That’s patently ridiculous, of course. Brown carefully avoided placing his father, Pat Brown, on his list of legacy-bereft governors and, in fact, has often cited his father’s accomplishments, such as the life-changing State Water Project.
Moreover, just days after dismissing any thoughts of legacy, Brown devoted much of his final State of the State address to recounting what he and the Legislature had done, presumably of lasting value, during his second governorship.
“Simply put, California is prospering,” Brown told legislators as he began his half-hour-long address. “While it faces its share of difficulties, we should never forget the bounty and endless opportunities bestowed on this special place – or the distance we have all traveled together these last few years.”
It’s highly likely that Brown sought the governorship again in 2010, 28 years after his first stint had ended, in large measure to erase its rather thin record and the somewhat flaky image he had acquired.
As Brown said in 2012, regarding one of the Capitol’s perennial conflicts, “Analysis paralysis is not why I came back 30 years later to handle some of the same issues. At this stage, as I see many of my friends dying – I went to the funeral of my best friend a couple of weeks ago – I want to get shit done.”
So did he get it done?
Yes, if one judges the record of Brown 2.0 against Brown 1.0 three decades earlier, when he often disengaged from governing California while perpetually campaigning for president or the U.S. Senate.
Even when he was engaged back then, he had to confront an openly antagonistic Legislature controlled by his fellow Democrats. Many legislators saw as him as an arrogant upstart who had ridden to election on his father’s name and by portraying the Capitol as a cesspool of corruption.
The Legislature overrode his vetoes repeatedly, on issues large (capital punishment) and small, including budget items.
Brown often resorted to genteel bribery, involving judgeships and local highway projects, to make even minimal gains. And even when he prevailed, the victories were often pyrrhic.
Brown conducted marathon negotiations to gain creation of an Agricultural Labor Relations Board, for example, hoping that it would help the United Farm Workers Union organize field hands. But despite the farm labor act and later laws to help the union, it is barely alive.
The young governor’s approval of collective bargaining for public employees had a more lasting effect, paving the way for their unions to become the Capitol’s dominant interest group. But that hegemony also had questionable effects, such as big increases in pension benefits that led to gigantic pension fund deficits.
Brown labored mightily to win legislative approval of a liquefied natural gas terminal near Santa Barbara, but it was tainted by revelations that the Brown family had a business partnership with the Indonesian oil and gas monopoly that would have supplied gas to California. Finally, deregulation of domestic gas supplies made LNG unnecessary, and the terminal site was found to sit atop an earthquake fault, so nothing came of it.
Brown also put much effort into winning legislative approval of a “peripheral canal” that would carry water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and complete his father’s immense water project. But in 1982, a referendum killed the canal – although it was later revived in the form of twin tunnels whose fate is uncertain as he leaves office again.
The biggest issue of Brown’s first governorship, however, was Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot measure to limit property taxes. He denounced it as “a ripoff” before the election, but quickly declared himself a “born-again tax cutter” after its passage and sponsored a state income tax cut as he sought re-election.
The state tax cut, coupled with a “bailout” of schools and local governments to offset their loss of property taxes, put the state budget into an immediate operational deficit. Within a few years, Brown had burned through reserves and bequeathed a large deficit to his Republican successor, George Deukmejian.
Ever since, the state budget has been plagued by a volatile mismatch between revenues and spending and by the time Brown returned to the governorship in 2011, the budget had a $27 billion deficit, which he pledged to close.
The much older, more engaged Brown 2.0 did close the deficit, thanks to holding down spending, an economy that began climbing out of severe recession and, finally, his persuading voters to approve a hefty increase in taxes on the highest-income Californians.
To his credit, Brown has socked away more than $15 billion in “rainy day” reserves and this time will leave his successor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, with a healthy balance sheet.
That said, the budget’s structural problem – too much dependence on taxing the wealthy, whose incomes fluctuate heavily – is even more acute. Brown’s own budget staff estimates that a moderate recession would slash revenues by $60 billion over three years, four times the state’s rainy day reserves.
Brown could have sought tax reform that would have reduced revenue volatility, but he was unwilling, apparently because it would be a heavy political lift.
The budget is just one of Brown’s purported accomplishments that only partially addressed their targeted issues and whose ultimate effect is very uncertain.
Another is the Local Control Funding Formula, a rewrite of school finance law that directed more resources into helping poor and English-learner students close the “achievement gap” with more privileged classmates. But critics say local education officials have diverted the extra money into other purposes, and so far, the achievement gap remains stubbornly wide.
Brown is trying, in the last weeks of his governorship, to resolve a number of water issues – particularly whether agricultural supplies should be cut to help river flows for fish – in hopes that the Delta tunnels can win approval, but their fate remains uncertain.
The other big public works project he has championed, a north-south bullet train system, is likewise up in the air. Although some track is being laid in the San Joaquin Valley, financing for an extension to one of the state’s metropolitan areas is lacking.
Last week Brown insisted, “They will be built” as their positive effects gain appreciation.
Another supposed accomplishment, a mild reform of public employee pensions, is another whose ultimate effect is uncertain. But even it survives legal challenges, now being considered by the state Supreme Court, the reform will have only marginal effect on the multi-billion-dollar “unfunded liabilities” plaguing state and local government pension systems.
Mandatory “contributions” from local governments and school districts are being increased dramatically to close the pension fund deficits, but are pushing some local entities to the brink of insolvency.
Brown declared reform of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to be “the Lord’s work” but was an agnostic in trying to do it, apparently, as with tax reform, because of its daunting politics.
However, CEQA reform is regarded as one of several changes needed to cope with the state’s ever-worsening shortage of housing since it is often invoked by local opponents of housing development. Brown will leave office, therefore, having taken only a few token steps toward fixing the housing crisis – the largest single factor in the state’s having the nation’s worst level of poverty.
Although willing to accept half-a-loaf responses to many other issues, Brown 2.0 fully committed himself to two causes – making California a global leader in reducing carbon dioxide emissions to slow climate change, which he terms “an existential threat,” and undoing lock-‘em-up crime laws that he and other governors and voters had enacted during the 1970s and 1980s.
Spurred by federal court orders to reduce prison overcrowding, Brown embraced measures to reduce penalties for some crimes and send fewer felons to prison, bucking opposition from law enforcement officials who said the reforms could touch off a surge of crime.
Brown sought not only to escalate carbon reductions, but make himself a global figure on the issue – especially in contrast to President Donald Trump – and it’s likely to be his chief cause after leaving office.
Whether Brown’s legacy goes further will depend on whether the other things he championed – such as his school finance plan, criminal justice reforms, the bullet train and the tunnels – ultimate succeed or fall by the wayside.